Tips for Medical Professionals

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can help children cope with the family member’s illness. During such times of family crisis, children need more attention, support and understanding within their family, but the family is often so focused on meeting the needs of the patient, that it becomes very difficult to know how to help the children as well.

Children may have many questions and concerns about the illness, but they often have difficulty expressing them and may not ask directly. The most common themes are these:
    1.    Did I make this happen? Is this my fault?
    2.    Will I get sick, too?
    3.    Who will take care of me? How will this affect me?

Honest information, conveyed in an age-appropriate manner, can help children cope more effectively with the stress and worry caused by the serious illness of a family member. The following guidelines are suggested for medical professionals:

  • Ask the child to tell you what they know about the illness. This will give you a baseline for discussion, and will allow you to correct any misunderstandings.
  • Respect children’s ability to handle honesty. They want to know what is happening, and need to have that information in order to make sense out of the changes they see happening. Use the name of the disease and avoid euphemisms.
  • Keep explanations simple, using age-appropriate language; do not overwhelm a child with too much information.
  • Reassure the child that their thoughts, words or actions did not cause the illness.
  • If the illness is not contagious, reassure the child that he or she cannot “catch” it from the sick family member. If there is a threat of contagion, let the child know what can be done to protect him or her.
  • Give general information about the expected treatment and side effects that may impact the child.
  • Be prepared for questions about whether the person who is sick will die. Encourage realistic hope but do not make false promises.
  • Show interest and concern about how the child is doing. Acknowledge that this may be a difficult time for the child, and ask about their worries and questions.
  • Help the parent identify and access supportive services and information. Ele’s Place has information and workshops for parents on how to help their child cope with the life-threatening illness of a family member.