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How to Discuss a Grandparent’s Illness with Your Children

As part of #OurCommitment to creating spaces with multiple generations, it’s important to us to provide resources for all the members of the family. Traditions reached out to licensed social worker and parent coach for decades, Jill Huynh, to guide adult children in how to talk about the illness of a grandparent or beloved elder with children. 

When grandparents go through a significant illness, this is often the first time for a child/teen to have this life experience. The news can be challenging to share and possibly more difficult for kids/teens to receive and comprehend. A good first step is for the parent/caregiver to take some time to process the news themselves. Many will want to rush to inform others. Taking time for yourself will help you be your best self when delivering the difficult news.   

Many feel that “holding yourself together” is the best approach to sharing difficult news. It is okay to show your emotions when sharing the news with your kids/teens. In doing so you are showing them it is okay to have strong feelings and show them, which is a key life lesson. Once you are ready to share, be intentional, creating enough space to answer questions and provide support. For instance, you may want to avoid sharing when you are on the way to school as the child/teen may struggle with focus during the school day after hearing the news.   

It is important to be as honest as possible without sharing too many details that may be hard for a child/teen to understand.  Be prepared for questions about the diagnosis and the prognosis even if they are not asked. These are tough questions and thinking about your response ahead of time can be helpful.  Kids deserve to know the truth and will be more likely to turn to you with questions or for support if you are straight with them.  As far as details go, avoid sharing the full treatment regimen or the entire list of medications. This level of information can be very confusing. The best approach is to remain clear and concise.  

Keep your kids informed and updated on the status and treatment progress regardless of whether they are positive or negative. They deserve to know how things are going.  

Invite your kids to ask questions whenever they have them.  Be prepared that some questions may feel random; kids are trying to process the information with little to no experience with this situation. Remind them that no questions are off-limits or out of bounds. If you don’t know the answer to the question kids/teens ask you, let them know you will find the answer and get back with them.  Make sure to always follow up to answer every question as swiftly as possible.  

Kids/Teens may want to help their grandparents and there may be many different options for this assistance. Encourage them to be creative in thinking of ways to support or offer some ideas. For instance, maybe they can visit their grandparents and read to them or take care of their pet while they are in treatment. Younger children could be invited to draw a picture or make a card. Kids/Teen may be feeling a lack of control, just as you are, and a sense of purpose in supporting their loved one can make them feel like they have some influence in the situation.  

If your child/teen is really struggling with the news and challenges related to their grandparent’s illness and you notice significant behavior or mood changes and/or difficulty eating or sleeping, you may want to consider connecting with a child therapist to provide additional support through individual and/or family therapy.   

A couple children’s books that may help: 

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