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Children: Why To Tell About Your Condition And How To Tell

Guidelines For Telling Children Age 3 Through 7

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  • This age group is capable of understanding the inside of the body. Children in this age range are highly imaginative and have developed communication skills that facilitate active participation in teaching.
  • Most children from age three on have the necessary components to develop the concept of death.
  • Plan to talk for a very short time. Children of this age can only focus for brief periods.
  • Early in the discussion ask what the child knows about your condition.
  • Focus on telling about symptoms.
    • Be clear and simple. It may help to draw a picture of what is happening.
    • Use examples. You could remind them of a time when they got sick and went to a doctor to get better.
    • A simple explanation of anatomy and how the body works can be given and drawn on an outline drawing of the body which you can do in front of the child or before hand.
    • A doll can be used to visualize external appearance post-procedure or surgery.
    • If equipment will be used in your care, toys or models representing the equipment can increase the child's comprehension. Or perhaps you can show the child the equipment on line.
  • Tell the child, in general terms, about your prognosis. Let him or her know that a prognosis is what happened to people in the past, but is not necessarily what will happen to you. 
  • Help children understand the things that will be happening soon. Children this age can't think weeks or months into the future.
    • Explain upcoming tests and treatments - including the effect they may have on you.
    • Let them know they will be taken care of and by whom.
    • Let each child know how things will change in their routine for the day and in the near future. 
  • Encourage the child's questions and compliment his inquisitiveness. Give him credit for understanding.
  • Children under five may think that the illness may strike them next, that they may have caused their parent to fall ill, or that some bad action brought on the sickness. Reassure your child repeatedly that no one is to blame for the condition or hospitalization. This is recommended in all teaching, but is especially important for three to seven year olds who are preoccupied with guilt and blame.
  • Children this age may enjoy using a doctors kit and dolls or stuffed animals to "play out" some of their questions and anxieties about the medical procedures. This can be a second step after you have provided explanations using drawings and toys or real equipment as appropriate. You can let your child pretend he or she is the doctor. By watching the play, you may gain information as to how your child is feeling about your illness and treatment. This play may also provide children with a sense of greater mastery.
  • If you have a medical treatment that is ongoing, consider taking your child with you to a treatment to give the child a better understanding of what is happening and additional opportunities to ask questions.
  • Remember that young children may have strong feelings. They may express them by focusing on something else during your talk. This is okay. It allows them to deal with information and feelings at their own pace.
  • Suggest that the child come to you when he or she wants hears information from other people about your disease or wants more information. This is particularly important for young people who have access to the internet.
    • Other people are not likely to know your particular situation. Other children may have misinformation. Their information can be scary.
    • For advanced children, research on the internet is likely to turn up worst case scenarios.
  • Offer to answer any questions and to talk any time.

NOTE: Before telling your children, see: General Guidelines For How Much To Tell Children About Your Diagnosis

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