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Help your child to cope with serious illness

A serious illness rocks you to the core, and everything changes. This is difficult enough for an adult to try to get their head around but if you have – or are recovering from – a serious illness and you're a parent, how do you help your children understand what's happening to you?

by Psychologies

If you are struggling with a health problem, it can be hard to know how to communicate this to your children. Should you be completely honest and then try to reassure them as best you can? Should you spare them the details as much as possible, especially if you know the situation is serious or uncertain?

Children are quick to pick up on adult anxiety, and if they don't have the facts they may jump to their own conclusions, which might be even worse than the reality. Most children will be ok with a degree of uncertainty - it will be just as stressful for them to realise something is worrying the adults around them, but not know what it is.

In their BMA-approved book How To Feel Better, Dr Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins draw up some golden rules for how to talk to children in this situation:

  1. Reassure them that none of this is their fault.
  2. Give them a realistic explanation of what has happened, and what is happening now.
  3. Stick to normal routines as far as possible.
  4. Talk to them - and allow them to ask questions. Let it be an ongoing conversation.

'Your health problem is very likely to disrupt your child's life,' they write, 'but it does not have to be damaging. Don't let your fear, guilt or lack of confidence drive a wedge between you. You are still the parent - and parenting is about so much more than physical abilities. You can all come through this stronger than ever.'

You will know what feels appropriate for your family but if you feel that your child needs some extra help in coping, you can also speak to your GP about the support services available.

Dr Frances Goodhart is a consultant clinical psychologist with 20 years' experience of working with individuals and families who are coping with life-threatening illnesses. Lucy Atkins is a health journalist and author. How To Feel Better: Practical ways to recover well from illness and injury (Piatkus, £9.99) is out now

Photograph: Corbis

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