Explaining diseases to children

It’s never easy to be the bearer of bad news; with that Dr Gloria Tshimbidi offers guidance on how to explain diseases to children.

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Anyone can be told anything and that goes for children too. It’s natural to want to shield children from harsh realities such as illnesses, but it’s not always a good idea. Children pick up a lot more than we realise and understand things a lot better than we think they can. Whether it’s explaining their own disease to them or informing them of a loved one’s illness, it’s all about finding the right time, approach and vocabulary to communicate to your child what they need to know.

Things to consider

If you’re tasked with the difficult job of having to explain a disease to a child, consider the following: 

1. The age of the child

Children of different ages and developmental stages will have varied capacities of understanding. Nobody knows your child better than you do, so make sure to tailor your explanation to the level and volume of information that your child can understand. For example, no matter how intelligent your three-year-old may be, a 

lengthy explanation about how carcinogens, such as smoking, have predisposed Granny to lung cancer isn’t appropriate for a child of that age. Your teenager, on the other hand, may be more interested and curious about how Granny got cancer and may appreciate a more detailed explanation.

2. Timing

There never will be a right time to share difficult news. It’s important to consider what is going on in the life of your child and family when preparing to break bad news. Is it test/exam season? Is there a birthday or special occasion coming up soon? There is often something happening in your life that may cause you to delay sharing the news. Try to identify a relatively neutral time in your child’s and family’s calendar so as not to add a significant amount of stress during an already taxing period, or unintentionally dampen the mood in a happy time. 

3. Wording is everything

In an attempt to soften the blow of a big and scary diagnosis, you may be tempted to use a pseudonym or nickname for the disease or illness. For example, when HIV/AIDS was ravaging the country in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was dubbed Z3 after the BMW 2-seater sports car due to the alarming speed at which the disease was claiming lives. This can be confusing and potentially detrimental if your child isn’t informed of the real name and nature of the disease timeously and learns about it elsewhere. 

In these times of technological advancement and access to information, it’s not easy to control what your child learns and from which sources. It’s best to give your child the information they need in a controlled environment from a reliable source.

4. Ask for help

You don’t need to take on the burden of this task alone. Medical professionals such as your child’s or your own doctor, psychologists and nurses can assist with explaining the disease. The use of multimedia in the form of videos, songs or poems, and drawings may also be used to help your child conceptualise the disease.

5. Prepare yourself

And finally, as the bearer of bad news – prepare yourself. As difficult as it may be for your child to hear the news, it will also be difficult for you to share it. Make sure you have the correct information and most recent updates about the disease and the loved one/child’s diagnosis. Be prepared to answer your child’s questions, and it’s okay to admit that you don’t have the answer. Reassure your child that you will find the answers together or that you will update them once more information becomes available. 

Most importantly, prepare yourself emotionally and psychologically. You have no idea how you or your child will react to the information. It’s important to allow room for the expression of all emotions, allow time for breaks as needed and to have tissues, a comforting toy or person nearby.

It doesn’t have to be a destabilising experience

Difficult times in life is a harsh reality that you can’t avoid. You will be faced with having to deliver or to receive bad news at some point in your life. With good preparation, the right information and loving support, sharing difficult news doesn’t have to be a completely destabilising experience. 

Dr Gloria Tshimbidi is an aspiring breast surgeon, She is a surgeon in training at the University of the Witswatersrand and served as a community service medical officer at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic.

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Gloria Tshimbidi

Dr Gloria Tshimbidi is an aspiring breast surgeon, She is a surgeon in training at the University of the Witswatersrand and served as a community service medical officer at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic. 

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