4 Ways to Tell Your Child About Your Chronic Illness
Updated: Jan 5
Between school drop-offs, groceries, laundry, piano class pick-ups, and bedtime routines, receiving a chronic illness diagnosis can seem unimaginable to handle as a young parent. Choosing to not tell your child (or children) about it can thus seem like one less headache.
As a counsellor in Vancouver who works with individuals and their families living with chronic illness, I have witnessed many ways parents go about sharing their diagnosis with their child (or children).
Some of you may choose to withhold the news of a diagnosis for some time, and you are probably doing so for legitimate reasons: feeling a sense of shock, wanting to learn more about the illness, waiting for the right words, or working with your partner to come up with the right time, for instance. For others, talking to your child (or children) about your diagnosis will be more immediate.
Whatever your time frame, trust that it makes sense for you and your family circumstance.
4 Ways to Tell Your Child About Your Diagnosis
When you do talk to your child (or children) there are some things you might want to consider to ensure your message is received:
Do your homework
Providing accurate information requires effort and patience. It is thus important for you to do your homework. While this may be the last thing you'd want to do, between house chores and work, it can help you immensely. Learn about the illness to prepare you for the questions that may arise. Connect to your local organization to receive printed materials. Form your own language around the illness so that it is easier to explain.
In the days after talking to your child (or children) about our illness, you should be especially aware of their reactions and offer support when distress is noticed. Approach your child (or children) if they seem off. Provide them with a safe space to share their feelings and thoughts about the diagnosis. Let them know you've heard them, and that you will do your best to be there for them.
Just like adults, not every child will want the news to be spread like wildflower. It is thus important to create privacy around the diagnosis to respect your child's wishes. As a family, you may want to talk about who you feel comfortable telling sooner rather than later. For instance, talking to your child's teacher about an illness in your family may help them monitor for any new behavioural or emotional challenges that may arise at school. It may also be important to talk to your child about your own privacy boundaries. This can guide them towards who they are allowed or not allowed to share the news with.
After a week or two, maybe even month, it might be wise to check-in with your child (or children) about how the news of the illness has settled. There are lots of reasons why children will process the news differently: age, intellect, emotional intelligence, language skills, etc. Some may still be trying to understand what "illness" means, while others may be deeply pensive about the way this may affect their future. No matter the stage, as a parent, it is important that you stay grounded, and open your heart to meet your child's needs. You may need to offer clarification, buy books, or set up a family counselling session. Just as when you told your child (or children) about your diagnosis, it's also important to be prepared when checking-in.