Helping Kids Cope with a Parent’s Illness

Dear Mr. Dad: Though my husband is only in his early forties, he recently suffered a heart attack. He’s back home now and the prognosis is good, but our children, ages 9 and 11, saw everything and are very worried about him. How do we reassure them that Dad is fine?

A: Witnessing a parent’s illness (mental or physical), or a sudden medical emergency can indeed be very troubling to a youngster—and plenty upsetting to a spouse as well). It’s even more disturbing if the kids saw paramedics performing CPR or taking away their father in an ambulance.

You can imagine a lot of the frightening thoughts that probably raced through their minds: Will my Dad die? What will happen to me if he does? Can I have a heart attack too? If something does happen to Daddy, will it happen to Mommy too?

When an illness or a life-threatening emergency strikes, many parents think that shielding their children from the truth is a good way to protect them from hurt and worry. That’s a very rational though and a natural instinct, but in many cases it’s actually not in the kids’ best interest. Kept in the dark, they may end up feeling even more confused and frightened, and left unchecked, their imagination will create a far worse situation than what’s really happening. This is clearly one of those situations when honesty truly is the best policy.

When talking to your children about their Dad’s heart attack, make sure all of your explanations are age appropriate. At 9 and 11, they’re old enough to grasp what a heart attack is, what the possible causes are, and, assuming that you know, what brought on your husband’s.

Then explain what medical treatment their father is undergoing to prevent a re-occurrence, and how the whole family can help. For example, from now on the whole family might be eating healthier diet or participating in a group sport activity. Witnessing a heart attack up close and personal is not the best way to teach a lesson but learning about heart-healthy habits and lifestyle choices right now will lay a good foundation for the future.

Just as importantly, make sure to let your children know that they didn’t do anything to cause their father’s heart attack. In moments of exasperation, most parents have said something like, “If you don’t stop that right this minute, young lady, you’re going to give me a heart attack.” So tell the kids clearly that nothing they said or did (even if it was an angry, “I hate you and wish you were dead!”) brought on this incident.

Whenever an illness or other misfortune strikes, encourage the children to ask questions and to express their worries and concerns. Always answer truthfully—again, in an age appropriate way—even if the news is not good. As difficult as confronting the truth may be for the children, at least they’ll know that they can always count on you to give them honest answers. And that’s huge.

Sooner or later, all children will experience pain, loss, or disappointment. That’s just the way life is. I know that it’s hard to see this now, but as economist Paul Romer once said (although in a very different context), “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Tough times, such as a serious illness in the family, can be excellent lessons, teaching children how to share their feelings and offer comfort to others, and helping them develop an inner strength that will make it easier to cope with life’s adversities.

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