It can be challenging to know what to do or say to children when a grandparent is suddenly diagnosed with a serious illness, especially in the early days when there’s a degree of uncertainty about prospective treatment and likely outcomes.
It’s best not to keep too many secrets – children are very intuitive and will quickly pick up on any heightened sense of anxiety at home and conversations held in hushed tones will simply add to the feeling that something is very wrong. The reality may be much less worse than what a young child’s imagination can conjure up, so by being open you’ll actually be reassuring them.
Here’s my advice for making this conversation easier:
1. Ensure you can have a private conversation somewhere comfortable without interruptions and allow plenty of time for questions. If you don’t know the answer, be honest about it saying ‘That’s a good question – I’m not sure the answer to that one, so well done for mentioning it. I’ll find out and let you know’.
2. It’s important to be honest but be mindful of your children’s emotional capacity – they may not be able to absorb all the details in this initial conversation so giving details in bite-sized chunks further down the line, may be a better way forward. Avoid making unrealistic promises but stay positive and focus on the support and care that the grandparent is receiving. If you have children of varying ages, it might be better to tell older ones first and enlist their help in telling and supporting younger siblings.
3. Tailor your explanation so it’s age-appropriate and avoid complicated medical jargon in this first conversation. Simple metaphors and analogies can be really useful to explain the concept of cancer, for example. You might compare cancer cells to ‘unhealthy’ cells that need special treatment and magic medicine to get better.
4. Plenty of good people will be looking after and supporting your child’s grandparent – from the local GP to all the doctors and nurses at the hospital. Try to personalise these details by using the names of medical staff as this will feel more reassuring and you could even liken one of them to your child’s favourite superhero. Looking at a map and locating the hospital or medical centre that the grandparent will be attending, can also give the sense that the problem is being professionally and effectively dealt with.
5. Creative activities such as drawing, writing or modelling can be helpful for children to express their feelings. It’s not always easy to put feelings into words so these types of activities can create a useful outlet. You may find that sitting with your child and joining in will be therapeutic for yourself too.
6. Involve your child in small care-giving activities such as creating get well cards or video messages, baking cakes or picking flowers from the garden. These small activities can help children feel that they’re contributing to the grandparent’s wellbeing.
7. Keep to a regular routine. Children get their sense of the world around them through their regular routines and school activities, so it’s important to try to stick to your usual timetable of events. It can be tempting to add in extra treats and sweets to make the world seem like a better place but avoid over-compensating, as your children are more likely to sense that something’s not quite right.
8. Monitor your family’s emotional wellbeing. Be vigilant for changes in your child’s behaviour such as unexplained angry outbursts, nightmares, bedwetting or eating issues. At the same time, be mindful that your own wellbeing will naturally be suffering too – short-temperedness, forgetfulness, insomnia, cravings for alcohol or unhealthy snacks are all signs the stressful situation is starting to take its’ toll. Introduce more healthy walks in the fresh air and family movie nights with comedy films on the agenda.
Alicia Eaton is a Harley Street-based psychotherapist and children’s emotional wellbeing expert.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.