When mummy or daddy is ill

publication date: Apr 23, 2007
You may have a life-threatening illness, or you may face going into hospital for an operation that could mean your lifestyle will be restricted for a time - for instance a hysterectomy will mean you won’t be able to lift or carry a child for some weeks - and you will have to explain to the kids why you have to go into hospital and why you won’t do certain things when you come home. 
Many parents worry that telling their children the truth will burden them but often children will guess there is something wrong and will worry, sometimes unnecessarily. For example you may be going into hospital for a routine operation but your small child’s only concept of hospital was when a grandparent was admitted and then died there. One way to counteract this is to give other examples, mentioning someone else’s parent who has been in hospital and who’s now fit and healthy.

It is much better for you or your partner to explain what is going to happen than for a child to discover the truth or get misleading information from someone else. A child might be devastated to learn from your next-door neighbour’s child that you’re going to have an operation especially if the other child likes to embellish the facts.

So when you tell your child, don’t:
  • Lie about your illness.
  • Worry them with too much medical detail. Keep it simple.
  • Be upset if they seem unconcerned or offhand when you tell them about your illness - each child reacts differently and some need time to absorb and think about what you’ve told them. They also might be trying to protect you from their own emotions, fearing they could make you worse.
  • Make promises you might not be able to keep - for instance say “I’ll try to be there for sports day (or whatever)”.

But do:
  • Say you don’t know (if you don’t) in answer to a question.
  • Listen to you child’s fears, don’t dismiss them.
  • Explain what will happen to them while you’re in hospital, who will look after them and when they’ll be able to visit.
  • Try to stick to familiar routines - your child will feel more secure if his regular outings to clubs, music lessons, friends houses are maintained.
  • Make sure they know they are in no way responsible for your illness - young children often think they are to blame.
  • Share your feelings. Telling a child you feel sad about leaving him but will be so happy when you come back will allow him to express his own feelings and fears.
  • Involve your child in what is appropriate for his age. Even small children like to think they can help by bringing a drink of water or passing something you need.
  • Let nursery workers or teachers know what is happening - they may be able to help if there are any problems and will be more understanding if your child starts behaving out of character at school.