Therapists weigh in on how to tell a child their mom is sick

Therapists weigh in on how to tell a child their mom is sick

I’ve been struggling to figure out where my kids belong in this multiple sclerosis roller coaster we have been put on.  As I mentioned in my last post, a karmic email ended in my inbox asking if I had any questions for Individual and Family Connection.  Abbie Kelley and Julianne Neely are two Chicago based therapists that specialize in dealing with issues our children face everyday.

Here is a guest post written by the ladies that offers many new ideas and concepts that will be helpful for my family and hopefully helpful for you too.

*    *    *

When a serious diagnosis is revealed to a family, it can be hard to know what to say or do!  As an adult, it is already difficult enough to cope with the news. It is not uncommon for feelings of helplessness, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc to flood in.  With all these feelings, the thought of approaching your children with the news can seem overwhelming.

After initially receiving the news, take some time to center yourself and your feelings.  Take time to have some adult conversations with your support network in order to process your initial emotions and reactions. You want to make sure that you have processed some of the raw emotions before entering into conversation with your children, so that you can present the information to them in a factual, rational way.   Sorting through your emotions during this process will remain important and fluid, however releasing those initial, really raw emotions to your support network is essential before approaching your children.

Develop an age appropriate conversation to have with your children regarding the serious illness.  Do not lie to your children, but also be careful with the information you disclose, depending on their age and maturity.   The information you share with them has to serve a purpose; either informative or helpful.  If you share unnecessary information, they may become confused or miss the importance of the message you are trying to convey. 

Don’t keep your children in the dark; otherwise, they will imagine the worst in their own heads.  Before approaching your children, ask yourself how the information you share with them will help them. If it won’t or does not serve a purpose, that is a good indicator to keep that conversation between the adults.

Your initial conversation, just the beginning of several ongoing conversations to be discussed as your child begins to process the information, should include the following:

  1. What the diagnosis means
  2. Your feelings about the topic. It is okay to share your own feelings of disbelief, confusion, etc. This is a great way to demonstrate that it is acceptable to feel icky emotions, but it is not acceptable to hurt others or act out as a result of those feelings.
  3. How you cope with those feelings—such as by talking to friends, journaling, or doing yoga. The best way to teach coping skills is to demonstrate them.
  4. Brainstorm together ways that may work for your child in order to build coping skills to utilize when feelings begin to overwhelm them.
  5. The importance of talking with one another
  6. Your children will likely be wondering ‘why’ this occurred.  Remember, children often internalize negative experiences and feel responsible.  It is important to tell your children that no one did anything wrong or is being punished and that sometimes bad things happen, and there are not always reasons for this.
  7. If you are a family of faith, this is a good opportunity to talk about your faith.

As you continue this ongoing conversation, let your children know that crying is a healthy release of emotions.   If your children never see you cry, they may wonder what is wrong with them when they cry.  This can demonstrate to your children that you can release your emotions without having them debilitate you.  It should be noted that your expression of emotion needs to be a release, and that you want to make sure your children are not taking on the caretaker role throughout this process.  If that starts to occur, reach out for additional help.

Following this initial conversation, it is important to discuss the changes that might occur for the family and in the home.  Children crave predictability and feel safe when they know what is going to happen next.  When things are chaotic or disorganized, children really struggle to adjust and regulate.   Even if you are unsure of what is going to happen next, share that with them. In addition to discussing what might change, discuss what is going to stay the same.

Throughout this entire process, remember to ask your children if they have questions and encourage them to approach you if questions come up in the future.   Check in with them from time to time.  So often parents avoid following up with their children for fear that the ‘check-in’ will make them think about it when they weren’t before.  In our experience, your children are thinking about it just as much as you are.  If you do not check-in with them or discuss the topic, they will feel that the topic is off limits or they will not bring it up to protect YOU—imagine that! Your children are trying to do the same thing you are; the difference is that you are the adult.  Don’t let them carry that burden around on their own. Check-in weekly, even if it is only  ‘how are doing with the news’.  If they don’t share their thoughts, the gesture will still send a positive message.



Abbie Kelley, MA, LCPC and Julianne Neely, MSW, LCSW are licensed therapists specializing in child, adolescent, and family counseling. They share a private practice, Individual and Family Connection, where they treat children dealing with behavior problems, anxiety, low self-esteem, ADHD/ADD, and more. Abbie and Julianne are interactive, solution-based therapists who utilize a variety of techniques to help clients effectively address personal life challenges. They understand that every person and family goes through periods where extra support is needed and they consider it a privilege to step into others’ struggles and challenges in order to offer a listening ear and a helping hand. For more information visit: or add us on facebook!


For more Ups and Downs of a Yoga Mom Like us on Facebook or type your email address in the box below and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment