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Talking to Your Child

young daughter speaking with father laying on bed together

You may not be certain when to begin talking to your child about a hospitalization or diagnosis. The timing of that conversation, as well as your child’s reactions and needs, will depend on the child’s age, personality, and prior experiences.

Experts suggest that you discuss an upcoming hospitalization with very young children — up to about age 2 or 3 — one or two days ahead of the admission or procedure. Too much time may let their imagination work overtime and create unnecessary fear. Your child turns to you for comfort and safety, so your calm attitude and tone of voice can be enormously reassuring.

For children 3 to 5 or 6, begin the conversation three or four days ahead, which allows time for you to begin reading books about the experience together or engage in role playing to make them more aware and comfortable. Children ages 6 to 12 can be informed two weeks ahead of time, while adolescents are best involved in treatment discussions right from the start.

All children are likely to ask a number of basic questions, including:

  • What is wrong with me?
  • Why is this happening?
  • Will it hurt?
  • When can I come home?

In addition, younger children may be more concerned about being alone or may want to know whether they got sick because they were bad. You’ll need to reassure them that they aren’t being punished, that they will be safe, and that they will not be alone. It’s crucial to let them know that you or another family member will be with them or nearby at all times.

Older children and teens may be more concerned with whether they will look different or be embarrassed or humiliated. Providing information and letting them know it’s not unusual to have such feelings may help allay their anxiety.

Be sure to answer their questions calmly and honestly and avoid sugarcoating the facts. It’s important to the success of their experience that they can trust both you and the healthcare providers. Don’t forget to ask about their feelings and what they expect will happen so that you can correct any misunderstandings and support them emotionally.

Other considerations

  • Pack some special items that will help your child feel more secure, such as a favorite blanket or a comforting toy. If your child is old enough to help, letting them contribute to some of these choices may provide a sense of control.
  • Keep in mind that your child’s hospitalization may be equally stressful on siblings. All the same guidelines apply to discussing the illness and treatment with siblings, and their fears and feelings will need to be addressed and supported as well.
  • When you need more help preparing to speak with your child about a diagnosis or treatment, child life specialists are on staff to help. They can help provide you with all the information you need and with strategies for communicating gently and effectively with your child.
    • They also can assist your child directly using developmental interventions and play activities to understand the illness and be comfortable expressing their feelings. Child Life specialists work with parents, children, and the healthcare team to provide support throughout the care process and afterward.  If you’d like more information or wish to speak with a child life specialist, call 214-456-6280.