Talking to your child about their heart condition

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Children are not always ready to talk about their condition when you are. Look for signs for when your child might be ready to talk.

Key points

  • Maintain open and honest communication with your child about their condition, and answer their questions truthfully.
  • How your child copes with illness and how you respond to their questions will depend on your child's age.

Talking to your child about their condition can be difficult. They may not be ready to discuss it right it away. When your child is ready, it's important that you're able to appropriately answer their questions.

Tips for talking with your child

To maintain the trust children have with parents and caregivers, it is important to answer their questions truthfully. Here are some tips to help guide your conversation.

  • Find out what your child already knows by asking, “Can you tell me what you already know about (name of condition)?”
  • Clarify your child’s understanding. For instance, children who are familiar with medical terms may use correct words but may continue to have misconceptions. Saying words like “sick heart” can be confusing and your child may think they can “catch, cause or cure” a heart condition.
  • Take time to answer any questions your child may have. Give information that is age-appropriate – a level that matches their ability to understand.
  • As your child’s parent/caregiver, ask your child if they would like you to provide them with more information about their heart, “Can I tell you what I know about the heart?”
  • Share information in a clear way. How you share the information will depend partly on your child’s age; there is more information about what to tell children of different ages below.
  • Let your child lead the discussion as much as possible, as this will give you a better idea of what they want to know.
  • Be aware of how your child responds to the information. Listen to what they say and watch for non-verbal cues and changes in mood or behaviour. You could ask, “Is there anything you are wondering about?”
  • Maximize opportunities to talk and share information when your child is curious and asking questions about their condition.
  • Use varied resources to help talk to and educate your child, including books, videos, pamphlets, drawing or play. The Just for Kids section of AboutKidsHealth offers a variety of health-related games for kids, and How the Body Works shows what body parts such as what the heart looks like and how it works.

How children respond to illness, and how you help your child cope with illness, depend on their age as well as their normal coping style.

Talking to your preschooler about illness: 3 to 5 years

At this age, a child’s understanding of illness is vague.

  • They need simple explanations of the body, the illness, and the treatments. You could say, “You need to take medicine to help your body feel better."
  • They understand through direct experiences. For instance, they can understand “You have to go to the doctor because you have a cough.”

Talking to your school aged child about illness: 6 to 11 years

At this age, children are developing logical reasoning skills. They can understand external causes and are more interested in the body.

  • They need specific information about illness. For example, to help understand a heart condition you could say, “You take medicine and go to the hospital to see the doctor to help your heart.”
  • They can make links between their illness and needing treatment. For instance, they can understand that “Blood tests help us to see if the medicine is working.”

Talking to your teenager about illness: 12 to 18 years

At this age, teens are able to understand multiple causes of illness.

  • They can understand ideas about prevention and factors that may cause symptoms, such as stress and physical activity.
  • They are able to weigh risk. For example, “If I go up and down the stairs too often, my heart and my body get tired. I’ll ask my family for help so I don’t feel so exhausted.”
Last updated: October 26th 2018