Open Mind is a weekly column in which questions regarding mental health issues are answered by professionals. Open Mind appears in many editions of the Suburban Journal and other newspapers in Missouri.
My husband was recently diagnosed with a very serious liver illness. We are overwhelmed with this news and what lies ahead for us and our children. We’re in such an emotional state that we’re concerned about how to appropriately talk to our children who are 6, 9 and 13. How much do we tell them about the illness and the prognosis? Should we tell the same information to all of them? How can we best support our children during this difficult time?
When a parent receives a life-altering medical diagnosis or experiences a medical crisis (e.g. spinal cord injury, head injury), it is often difficult to know what children can understand and what is helpful for them to know. Most children are aware of the changes within the family. Therefore, it is important to provide them with some explanation and support.
First, start with very basic facts about what has happened and what the immediate plan is. Children of all ages need reassurance that they will be taken care of during this stressful time. Second, tell children only as much as they would like to know, and avoid overwhelming them with details they are not interested in. While some teens and older adolescents might be more sophisticated in their understanding, avoid using confusing medical terms and stick to concrete facts at an age-appropriate level. Finally, it is important to assess how children are doing by asking what questions they have and addressing their concerns.
In the Medical Crisis Coping Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, psychologists and behavioral health therapists will meet with children and families to help parents develop a plan that is tailored to their family. There is a wide range of reactions to a medical crisis, and it can often be helpful to seek professional support in learning how to cope with such a difficult event.
Medical Crisis Coping Center|
St. Louis Children’s Hospital