By Brenda Kimble
Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. While they might still be their delightful, exhausting, rambunctious selves when you’re feeling your worst, they can always tell when something’s not quite right. And just like the rest of us, that can make them stress out and worry that the worst could possibly happen to someone they absolutely adore.
Stress isn’t healthy for anyone, whether you’re 5 or 85—and it’s not just your children who are piling it on. We’re also betting that wondering what to tell your kids about your symptoms and your bad days isn’t great for your mental health, either.
In fact, telling your children what’s up can help you teach them healthy communication skills along with empathy and compassion. There are many reasons to fill your littlest loved ones in on the basics of your chronic illness and what it means for you and your family. Here’s how to get it right.
Ask your healthcare team for suggestions
Whether you have recently received your diagnosis or you’ve only just begun to consider sharing it with your children, this is all new to you. For your doctors, though, dealing with your chronic illness has been their job for years. Your family will not be the first they’ve worked with, so they might have some good ideas about how to explain your illness to children.
Ask them if there are any kid-friendly resources they’re familiar with, and if they have any specific recommendations for your unique situation.
Discuss with your partner what you want to share with your children
Even though you’re the one with the chronic condition, your significant other should have equal say about what you tell your kids about it, along with when and how. Since they experience your illness secondhand, just like your kids do, they might have some good ideas about how to explain it in a way they’ll understand.
It’s also likely that your kids have already asked them some questions about how you’re feeling and what’s wrong with you. That insight will let you know where you should focus your explanation—and give you time to come up with answers that are as kid-friendly as possible.
As you and your partner have this conversation, it might also be helpful to include other caregivers, like nannies and other family members. If they spend significant time with your children, they should know about the problems and changes your family is experiencing, especially since your kids might begin behaving differently.
Pick a time when you can give the conversation your full attention
It can be tempting to bury an important conversation in the middle of another activity. Resist that urge. Rather than talking to your tot while you’re driving the car or cooking dinner, sit down as a group and talk face-to-face.
Also try to do it when you don’t have any pressing activities to get to, like school or soccer practice. You want your child to know that you have as much time as you need to talk and, if they’re upset afterward, you won’t risk sending them off distracted or in the middle of a meltdown.
Use aids to help kids understand
There are specialty books, dolls and stuffed animals made for kids with chronic illnesses. Depending on your chronic illness and your children’s comprehension level, it might be helpful to lean on these tools as you describe what your sickness is, how it affects your body and what you’re doing to treat it.
Prepare them for any upcoming changes in routine
Kids’ lives are built on routines and any change in them can upset the order—and send your tots into tantrums. If you expect that there will be schedule disruptions in the short- or long-term, talk out the possibilities with your kids now so that they know what’s coming. Talking it through helps children get used to the idea of it before it becomes a reality.