Supporting Children When Someone They Love Has a Serious Illness Part 3 – Guidelines for Children 6-8 Years Old

Part 3 of our 6 part blog series sharing coping tips to help support children when someone they love has a serious illness. 

Guidelines for children 6 – 8 years old

Children between the ages of 6-8 will often feel anxious during a serious illness.  They fear being left and can feel they are the cause of family distress. They often blame themselves for bad things happening. Their actions are often tied to what is happening around them.  They may feel rejected when the person who is ill is less able to be part of usual family activities.
Behaviors to expect:
  • Showing many different feelings such as anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, and feeling left out or forgotten
  • More conflict between siblings
  • More acting out or sulking when separated from parents
  • Strong requests that their personal activities not be changed and loud protests when activities are changed
  • Concern about how the sick person looks and feels. Concern about changes in the person’s ability to talk or do things with them.
  • Becoming more clingy, stubborn or demanding
How to help:

Give the child information about the disease
Name the disease and write it down. Talk about how it changes and how the sick person may look or feel over time. Talk about treatments and causes.  Reassure children that nothing they did caused the disease. Let them know that it cannot be caught from the ill person.  Prepare explanations ahead of time, since children this age tend to ask questions that are very exact and they often include a lot of “why” questions.
“The doctors have told me that your grandpa has Parkinson’s disease and is going to die.”
“Parkinson’s changes the way grandpa’s brain works and it makes him shaky and maybe more tired than before.  It’s not like a cold because grandpa can’t give it to you or anyone through his germs.  This disease isn’t because of anything that you did or said. 
“The doctors will work very hard to make sure your grandpa isn’t in pain.  You will probably have questions about this.  Remember I am here to answer any questions that you have and that I love you very much.”
Talk with them about changes in the person’s illness and treatment
Update the child often.  This helps them feel valued and included.  When they feel close to their family members, they are better able to deal with the stress. When possible, let children talk with the doctors, nurses, and social workers caring for the ill person.
Children this age tend not to ask questions. This can be because they fear upsetting their parent or fear that the answers to their questions will be too scary. They may also worry that they will make the illness get worse by talking about it. Try not to let their lack of questions keep you from talking about it.
“The doctor has told me that the medicine hasn’t worked.  This means that the cancer is growing.”
“I’m hoping that something will happen and the cancer will stop growing on its own, but I’ve heard that this probably won’t happen.”
“Remember that this cancer has nothing to do with anything that you did or said.  I don’t know why I got this and I am really mad and sad about it.” 
“Most of all I want you to know that I love you and I want so much to be alive and see you grow.”
Help children understand that what they are feeling is normal
Talk openly about how the situation is hard for everyone.  If the person who is ill acts differently, explain that this is caused by the illness and not by a lack of love or caring.  Understand that children may still be angry about the changes within the family. Even if they’re not told that the person is dying, they will often fear this and may keep that fear inside.  Let them know that it’s okay to show their feelings. Allow them to see your own feelings and tell them that you will still take good care of them even though you are sad or mad or scared.  If children are struggling in school, let them know that this is normal given what they are going through and that it is temporary.
Prepare ahead of time for changes in routine
Prepare children for any situations where both parents may have to leave the house unexpectedly.  Talk ahead of time about the plan so they know what to expect.
“Your dad and I are going to be spending a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s helping with Grandpa.  We have a plan for when we aren’t able to pick you up from school.  Your Aunt Sue is going to give you rides home from school and to soccer practice.  She loves you very much.  We’ve talked to her and she’s promised to take good care of you, just like she does with her own kids.  We don’t know if this will happen, but we wanted you to know these plans just in case.”
Allow time for play or art
Play is the natural language of children and a healthy way for them to deal with stress.  It allows them to feel a sense of power and control. 
Be an advocate for your child
Talk with teachers and other adults in the child’s life about the illness. Try to be consistent with who cares for the child when you cannot. Try to chose people who relate well with the child. Extra praise can help children’s self-esteem during this stressful time.