How to Talk to Your Kids About the Hard Things

Nobody wants to expose their child to tragedy. These three tips can help you navigate grief and illness while keeping your family strong and connected.
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Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
November 8, 2016
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2
Minute Read

Everybody faces tough times. Life is marked by bumps in the road, transitions, and unexpected obstacles. As parents, tough times are tougher because you have to parent through them. You have to figure out how to be a mom or a dad in the midst of a troubling time, and you have to figure out how to talk to your kids about what you’re facing.

As a physician, I’ve walked alongside many parents as they’re going through illness, specifically cancer or another life-threatening diagnosis. I think this is one of the hardest challenges parents can face is being a parent while being sick.


Being a parent while being sick is one of the hardest challenges parents can face.

If you’ve been there, and I know many of you have been, you know how difficult this is. The diagnosis comes back. The tumor is malignant. It’s cancer. You have a five-year-old or a ten-year-old or a 13-year-old. What do you do? What do you tell your kids? How do you explain to them a life-threatening illness?

I recently sat down and interviewed my friend Cheryl Wilkinson. Cheryl is a breast cancer survivor and mother of three. She has wonderful insight into how to parent through cancer. She’s honest and real, and even talks about what she did when her kids asked that scary question, “Are you going to die?”

From my experience in the medical field and from my experience as a mother, here’s what I’ve learned about talking to your kids about cancer and illness:

1. Be honest with your kids.

Kids are very intuitive. They know when something is wrong. Don’t hide your diagnosis from them. Be honest and transparent. Your kid wants to know how you’re feeling. Tell him. Don’t keep him the dark or in the unknown. That could make him more anxious than simply knowing the truth.
So pick a time with your spouse to sit down and tell your kids about your diagnosis. Honesty is key during difficult times like this.

2. Decide with your spouse what details you will and will not share.

Being honest about your diagnosis doesn’t mean divulging every detail with your child. Decide, with your spouse, what you will and will not tell your child. Maybe you will tell him what type of cancer you have, and that you will be taking medicine for it, but you don’t have to tell them the exact chemo route you’ve decided to take and why, or which surgery route you’re going to take and why. Use wisdom and your best judgment to let them know the details you know they can handle.

3. Keep your language simple.

Whatever details you choose to share—and this principle could actually help determine what you will and won’t share with your child—keep your language simple. Medical language and big words will overwhelm your child. Tell her you’re sick and you’re trying to get better.

Tell her you’re taking medicine that your doctor told you to take. Tell her you’ll feel tired sometimes. You’ll be learning a lot of lingo and verbiage as you’re on your cancer journey—this is great information for you and your spouse to know, but your kids don’t have to know everything you’re learning about. Keep it and simple

I hope you found encouragement from Cheryl’s story and from this post. Please share it with any friend who may be struggling with illness and how to be a parent through it. It is a very difficult time, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless.

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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