Talking to kids about family health issues

Every family has a history. A social history, an economic history…and a health history. While we may be able to point to specific events that shape our family socially (how mom and dad met, why we parent a cetain way) and to events that shape our family economically (when a job was landed or the national economy tanked) medical and health histories are a little more nebulous. For the most part, we don’t exactly know how two sets of DNA will mix to form a new whole. But sometimes there are pieces of our health pasts that we know are likely to affect our children, both directly and indirectly — so when do we communicate those health issues?

Mom with cancer and son

Health issues in a family can affect kids in several ways: either directly when they have the health issue, or indirectly when it’s a parent or a sibling that has the health issue. Either way, you need to figure out what to communicate and when, and in a way that’s constructive – and won’t just generate fear.

Early onset

Some health issues in a family manifest themselves early in a child’s life. Perhaps there’s a genetic mutation that causes a specific syndrome or physical response in your child or a sibling or even a cousin. While some issues are relatively benign, other’s can be significant. You need to work with your child and your child’s pediatrician and/or other care givers to communicate what is happening in a supportive, age-appropriate way to the whole family – the affected child, siblings, and relatives.

Later onset

Once our children get to a certain age – when we get beyond the early years when we are worrying constantly about their health and development – it can be easy to forget to tell our kids about things that may crop up later in life, either to them or to their parents. Whether it’s mental health issues or a tendency toward heart issues or any of a number of things, kids do get to a point where they need to know this..but when? For example, if one side of the family has a history of cancer in middle age, when is the right time to communicate this issue and concern to your child. If one parent has an increased risk of developing a life -threatening disease while the kids are still relatively young, when should you bring it up? And how does this then affect the child’s risk when they eventually get to middle-age?

No fear

Particularly with possible later onset issues, it can be difficult to know when and how to communicate the issues to your kids when you are feeling fear yourself. However, at a certain point, your (older) kids need to know – but in terms they can understand and with tools they can use going forward. Younger kids may be able to handle simple explantions for certain things, like, “Daddy has these regular checkups to make sure he’s staying healthy for all of us,” but older kids need a little more honesty.

When talking to kids about potential medical issues, emphasizing the positives, their mix of genetic history, and how much medical research changes over time can help stem fears and uncertainty. Focus on what you can do to help prevent the medical condition, if at all possible. For example, with increasing evidence of living a healthy lifestyle having a postive effect on certain types of conditions, emphasize how all of you can continue to listen to those recommendations and take every preventative tack necessary. If your child requests it, and you think they are capable of understanding, you can choose to include them in discussions with medical care providers so they can understand the issues even further from a vetted, reliable source.

No matter what your family medical history, appropriate communication at all ages is important – though sometimes scare and reassuring at the same time. Information is critical for all of us, and can help us build happier and healthier families for the long run.?

More tips on talking with kids about health issues: