Real Life

Helping your children cope when your diagnosed with a serious illness

Health issues are not easy but there are ways to help your children, and take the strain off you.
Helping your children cope with an illness in the family

Battling a serious illness is a traumatic experience, but if you’ve got kids you can’t simply drop your parenting responsibilities and think about yourself all the time. Helping your kids deal with the upheaval in their lives because of your health issues is not easy – especially when you’re feeling really unwell. But there are ways to help them, which may take strain off you.

What you can do

Keep their routine as normal as possible so they don’t feel as if the rug has been completely pulled out from under their feet. Give them lots of cuddles, as this helps them feel secure. Continue to show an interest in what they like. This will stop them from feeling neglected.

Be honest with them and give them information that’s age-appropriate. If you don’t deal with their curiosity they may start imagining all sorts of scenarios. Prepare them for what to expect when they come to see you in hospital. Explain about tubes and machines and the fact that you’ll look unwell. With little children it’s a good idea for them not to stay very long, for both of your sakes.

Trust the judgement of your partner or another responsible adult when it comes to whether you should let them visit you if you’re very ill. Although it may be too traumatic for them to see you looking so sick, not seeing you can be worse for older children as their imaginations can run riot.

Take any help that’s offered. Accept that you can’t do everything you did before you got sick and that having help will make life easier for everyone. Make sure your children realise that being home from hospital doesn’t mean you’re back to normal. Explain that you may look okay but you’re still recovering.

Tell teachers and parents of close friends about what’s happening with you so they can provide support for your child. If your child seems anxious or depressed you may need professional support. Signs include changes in behaviour, such as becoming quieter or more outgoing than usual, taking risks, doing poorly at school and no longer being interested in favourite activities or friends.

How your child responds can depend on their age

Children under 2 1/2:

They may understand about being hurt, but not the concept of illness. Separation anxiety can be an issue and if you’re not around or can’t do things you previously did, they may initially act up, hoping that will help things return to normal. They may then become withdrawn.

Help them by:

  • Sticking to a normal routine.

  • Warning them about changes.

  • Giving them lots of love.

Children under five:

They may understand what it means to get hurt or sick but expect you to recover quickly. They can still have problems being apart from you and may show how upset they are by being angry. Their behaviour can regress – for example they may start wetting the bed again years after they’ve stopped.

Help them by:

  • Reassuring them that they will be looked after and other people will be there if you can’t be.

  • Encouraging activities that help them express emotions.

  • Answering their questions with simple answers.

Five-to eight-year-olds:

They may ask a lot of questions and seem more interested in details of the illness rather than how it will affect you. After a while they may seem to get bored of you being ill.

Help them by:

  • Giving them clear and honest answers so their imagination doesn’t take over.

  • Letting them see it’s okay to show your emotions.

  • Trying to keep life normal.


They may worry about your illness affecting their life and also become concerned about their own health. They may keep their feelings hidden because they think it’s childish to show them.

Help them by:

  • Being patient if they seem self-absorbed.

  • Encouraging them to keep up activities away from home.

  • Reassuring them about their own health.


At this age your children may be struggling with wanting to support you and also wanting to be independent. It may be hard for them to show their feelings because they think they should be strong.

Help them by:

  • Talking with them as much as possible. If they’re slow to express their feelings you may have to prompt them.

  • Give them plenty of freedom to spend time with their friends.

  • Letting them take on extra responsibilities – but don’t make them into your surrogate, especially if they’re the oldest child in the house.

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