Talking to your Child about becoming seriously Ill

Talking to your child about you, their parent, potentially becoming seriously ill is something most parents might think about, but hope will never come to pass.  Therefore, planning what they would say and do is never put into action.

It is hard to talk with your children about the possibility of you, not being there to care for them. However, taking the time to sit and talk with your child about the possibility of this happening is extremely important especially as we go through the COVID-19 crisis.

Using props and play to support your child to understand the concept of Mammy or Daddy getting sick can be helpful.  Sitting with older children and finding ways to introduce the topic through an art activity, a movie time, story time or just as you relax can work well. Children like to have something else to focus on when the topic at hand might be hard for them. Allow time for children to ask questions as you work through the fears and anxieties this will raise for them. Some children might ask no questions the first time to raise this issue with them.

Follow up the conversations with more light-hearted games and activities. Reassure children that you are exploring the issue with them, so they know there is a plan in place.  Be sensitive to their needs and their age; however, do not avoid the topic for fear of making children more anxious. Children are often thinking about things long before parents broach the subject with them.

Children will have many questions and they will come back to you over and over in the coming  weeks and months. New questions or old questions will be asked again as children try to process what is means for a parent to be sick; what it means for them and their care and wellbeing if a parent is sick. Something on the TV, in the paper or a conversation overheard will prompt them to ask more questions and gain more clarity. Offering reassurance by answering their questions will help them through such difficult concepts.

Continue to make time for talking things through with family, not only illness. Plan time in your weekly routines for sitting and talking with your child. Children sometimes will save a question as they know the space will come up, rather than going looking for the space. Support children to understand that we all make plans, however it does not mean something will happen. Give them examples of other situations when you have planned for something that in the end was not needed.

Expect your children’s behaviour to change over this time as they process new concepts that maybe difficult for them. Make time each day to incorporate 20 minutes of Quality Time. This is time in the busy day when you are fully present to your children; listening to them; available to them; allowing time to talk. We can feel because we are at home that we are with our children all day. However, if we monitor what we are doing as parents, we might notice how busy we are and how much time we are not fully engaged with children. Try to incorporate fun into each day, enjoy activities together and create good memories of COVID-19 too.

The following tips will support you as a parent to understand what may be happening for your child at this time:

Awkward Questions: As a parent you will already know there are many times children ask awkward questions. You will have had to be brave and find the answers no matter how hard. This is one of those times.

Worry: Children, due to their very existence and developmental stage will worry about what happens to them if a parent gets sick or dies.  This can happen more if one parent or another close relative has died. Who will look after them? Where will they live? Look out for all the tips around supporting children with worry/anxiety and build some actions into daily life.

Time for Feelings: Talking about your children’s worries is important so you can try to understand what they worry about. Share a little with them about what you worry about too. Make sure to keep it appropriate to their age. Be open about feelings within the family. Make it safe to say how you feel.

Identify Needs: What you as their parent might worry about could be somewhat different to that of your child or very much the same. Identifying your child’s needs at this time will help you to start creating a practical plan around supporting them. Unmet needs will create new and often challenging behaviours.

Practical Steps: Consider what would happen if you were to become seriously ill. Focusing on taking practical steps will help you start a journey along with your child in preparing for changes. This does not need to be scary or create more anxiety than already exists. Creating the plan is about answering the questions you all have, that each of you are afraid to ask out loud.

Children often like facts: Children will want to know who will look after them if they live alone with one parent. If Mammy or Daddy become sick and need to stay at the hospital, what is the plan? Be factual in the planning. Young children are not always ready for the emotional impact of a change; they often focus on practical changes first.

Call askonefamily Lo-Call Help line 1890 662 212 for a listening ear, advice and support.

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Extra Resources

Talking with children about the death of a loved one: