Five ways to help kids cope when a family member gets sick

When you get the news that a loved one has been diagnosed with a major illness, life quickly gets thrown into an internal—and often external—sense of chaos. Everything else falls by the wayside and helping the person who is sick becomes number one priority. But the rest of life doesn’t stop. You work, you have to keep the household running and you have to be there for your kids—all while dealing with your own emotions of worry and exhaustion. How on earth can you manage? Before anything else, identify people in your life who can help you carry the load. If you usually go it alone, now is the time to practice asking for help. The number of people who will step off the sidelines will likely surprise you. Let them. Give clear directions on what you need and be okay with their assistance.

With so much going on—doctor appointments, daily care, hospital stays—it’s easy to set aside your kids’ needs. But you are a beacon sending a signal of concern and uncertainty, and they pick up on it even if you are good at hiding it.  They need you to help them cope. Here are 5 ways you can help.

1. Be honest.

“Without information, kids fill in the blanks and oftentimes what they make up in their heads is worse than what’s really happening. The unknown is anxiety-producing and scary. Even if the truth is hard to hear, it’s better than not knowing,” says Kathy Sigda, Child and Adolescent Psychologist with UCHealth’s Mountain Crest Behavioral Healthcare Center in Fort Collins. 

Of course you should keep your child’s age and developmental stage in mind, but honesty is best. With young kids you will find they are often satisfied with the short answer.  

“To a 5-year-old you can say, ‘Daddy is sick but we are doing what we can to help him get better. Then name concrete ways the illness will affect her daily life. Maybe daddy will be home resting more, maybe there will be a machine that helps him breathe,” Sigda says.

For young kids, keeping their routine predictable is calming. As much as possible, maintain their normal routine with school, sports and activities.

2. Answer the questions they ask.

Be open to questions. It’s okay to say you don’t have the answer, but that you will share it when you do. Send the message that it’s okay to talk about it, then do it at their pace. Maybe they can only listen 30 seconds before running off to play. That’s okay,” Sigda says.

She explains that young kids don’t always understand what they hear the first time so they might ask you the same question over and over again. Be patient and answer as often as needed. She also advises keeping your conversations on the illness relatively short, but being open to having a lot of them.

With teens, you can be more frank and go deeper. You can give a more medical explanation and share some of your own feelings. Sit down and do research together. Listen as they voice their fears and let them know you are scared, too.

“We all feel worried and uncertain when someone we love is sick. It helps teens to know you feel the same way,” Sigda adds.

3. Give kids space.

Without time to process what they are feeling—or breaks away from the illness—kids start feeling pent up and overwhelmed. Just like we all do, they need chances to step off the spin of it all. This can come in the form of a sleepover at a friend or family member’s house, having a person outside the family to talk to and letting kids have their own response without judging or tempering.

“Kids need to be allowed to have whatever reaction they are having, even it is pulling away from the sick person or showing anger about the illness,” Sigda says. 

Kids also need to hear the message that their needs are important too. If your child is being too loud in the house, resist phrases like, ‘Be quiet, you are disturbing your father!’ Kids can form crazy beliefs about sicknesses in the family—thinking at some level they are making it worse or even that they caused the illness in the first place. Instead, realize they need to be kids and suggest they take their loud play outside or set up other outlets for them to let off steam. 

“It’s very helpful to have an adult outside the family for kids to talk to. Kids are very tuned in to their parents’ stress and they don’t want to add to it by bringing up their own concerns,” Sigda says.

4. Stay positive as much as reality allows.

This is where it gets tricky. You want to keep your outlook positive without creating a false sense of hope or hiding hard truths. If you fall back on the ‘everything’s fine’ mantra kids feel your dishonesty because they know everything is not fine—by your actions, facial expressions and sighs—if not by your words. 

“Yet to dwell on the chance of death is not helpful. Stay as positive as reality allows,” Sigda says.

Share hopeful news and how the doctors are helping. Focus on concrete ways the child can help their sick loved one and arrange one-on-one time with that person so she can stay connected.  

“Medical situations are usually never certain. It’s okay to share this uncertainty and to say you are not sure what the future holds, but here is what the doctor is doing or saying,” Sigda says.

What if it’s terminal? Sigda advises telling your child that their loved one is dying when Hospice gets called in, and using Hospice family services to help.

“But if doctors are saying the person has six months to two years, I would not communicate that to a child. Teens who are researching may find out, but for younger kids who have a less exact sense of time, I wouldn’t. Predictions change. It’s better to wait until death is eminent,” she says.

5. Take care of yourself.

As you likely know, caring for a sick person is one of the most stressful situations a person can endure. It’s vitally important that you do the same for yourself as you do for your kids—set up breaks away, find someone you can really talk to and who can give you lots of hugs and emotional support. Enlist friends and neighbors to run errands, do simple household tasks and cart the kids around. After all, to be the trunk that everyone is leaning on, you need sustenance to stay strong.

UCHealth sponsored this article.

Know someone with a chronic illness that needs support?

Do you have a neighbor or friend with a chronic illness that’s trying to go it alone without much success? University of Colorado Health offers community case management at no charge for those who qualify. The program helps at-risk individuals who don’t have resources that are chronically or terminally ill and who are not eligible for other in-home services. Advanced Practice Nurses and Licensed Clinical Social Workers go into the home and help manage physical health problems, educate on the illness, provide emotional support and monitor progress. 

To be eligible for case management services, patients must live in the Fort Collins, Windsor or Loveland areas and have a physician who is on the medical staff at Poudre Valley Hospital or Medical Center of the Rockies. The program has won the national Magnet prize for its ingenuity and impact.

UCHealth Community Case Management