Talking to your child about illness

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Learn helpful tips when talking to your child about illness.

Key points

  • What children can understand and what they want to know depends on how old they are and how they cope with things.
  • When talking to your child about illness, ask them questions to get a better understanding of what they know and understand.

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

The following suggestions may help you talk to your child about illness:

  • Find out what your child already knows. You could ask, "Can you tell me what you already know about ____________ (name of condition)?"
  • Clarify your child's understanding. For instance, children with asthma may use correct words but may continue to have misconceptions. You could ask, "What does 'asthma' mean?"
  • Ask to share more information. You could ask, "Can I tell you what I know about ____________ ?"
  • 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, "Do you have any questions about anything we have talked about? What do you think or how do you feel about all this?"
  • Maximize opportunities to talk and share information when your child is curious and asking questions about their condition.
  • If you do not know the answer to your child's questions, take the opportunity to find the answer together. This will help your child gain the confidence to ask questions and begin to take control of their situation.
  • Use varied resources to help talk to and educate your child, including books, videos, pamphlets, drawing or play.

Talking to your preschooler about illness: 3 to 5 years

At this age, children's understanding of illness is vague and magical.

  • They need simple explanations of the body, the illness and the treatments. You could say, "You need to take medicine to help you stay strong and healthy."
  • They begin to understand conditions through direct experiences. For instance, a child of this age can understand that "I have to go to the doctor because I 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, if your child has a heart condition, you could say, "Your heart needs to be fixed, and we'll be going to the hospital soon to make it better."
  • 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 instance, one teenage girl with epilepsy says, "If I play basketball I will have a seizure. I still want to play, and I choose to play on weekends so seizures will not disrupt my school work but I can still enjoy my sport."
Last updated: June 13th 2012