Parents need to welcome all their children’s questions warmly. Setting the stage for open questioning will allow your children to feel included and important in the process of dealing with an illness. It will also prevent them from worrying alone. Answering these questions will often evolve into conversations that can help parents better understand how their children are thinking about the illness, including worries and misconceptions they may have. Such misunderstandings—for example, what caused the disease, whether it is catching, or what will happen to the parent—create unnecessary anxiety. Conversations with parents can dispel these misconceptions and help children feel that they can talk about difficult topics.
Sometimes a child’s question doesn’t seem to make sense, or raises enormous topics that the parent doesn’t know how to address. It can be helpful to try to tease out exactly what the child wants to know. Responding with a question of your own can help clarify what’s really being asked and allows you to address the specific concern. One approach to try is, “What got you thinking about that?” Children’s questions are often simpler or more specific than we realize. “Will Mom be better by summertime?” may not really be about her prognosis, but may have behind it the question, “Will we still be able to go on the vacation we planned?”
When a young child asks “Where do babies come from?” you probably don’t answer with all the anatomical details. Similarly, a question like “How did Dad get sick?” may not lead to a detailed biological explanation. Sometimes asking the child “How do you think Dad got sick?” can uncover hidden worries or fears that should be addressed.
You might be worried that your child will ask you a question that you can’t answer, or that you would want to consult someone else about. These may range from medical issues beyond your expertise to larger philosophical or spiritual questions that you would want to discuss with your spouse or clergy. You can still welcome the questions warmly: “That is such a good question, but I need to think about it/talk with Dad/speak with the doctor and get back to you.” however. You can then talk with others or spend some time to figuring out what kind of answer to give, and present it back to your child at an opportune time.