Talking to Children About Terminal Illness

“One of the most difficult things we ever have to do is to tell a child he or she has a very serious condition and may not survive it, or that a parent has a condition they may not survive,” said Dr. Alan Stein, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Oxford.

Dr. Stein is the senior author on two articles published last week in the British medical journal The Lancet, which suggested guidelines for talking to children about life-threatening illness, one on when the illness is the child’s own and the other on when a parent is ill.

The doctors and other health care providers who are treating a parent with a serious illness often don’t see this as their job, Dr. Stein said, but it can make a tremendous difference. Children are sensitive to changes in their parents’ behavior, he said, and profoundly aware of parental mood and family atmosphere.

“If we don’t tell them, they have to cope with their anxieties by themselves,” he said. “If it can be shared, they can get the kind of support they need, and the evidence is, this in many cases has benefits for the family system and the individual child.”

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