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How to Answer Children’s Questions When Someone Is Sick

Learn how to respond with calm answers to common concerns.

Key points

  • After listening to the news on TV or seeing reports of illness and deaths on the internet, children will likely have questions and maybe worries.
  • When children ask questions about the health of public figures, they may also be expressing concerns about you or themselves.
  • When you are steady and calm as you answer a child's questions, they can feel reassured even if the information is upsetting.

Children are constantly trying to learn about and understand what is happening in their world. These days, that world is often in turmoil. COVID is surging, and there are reports of the rising number of cases of monkeypox and polio. These are sometimes associated with announcements of deaths of people of all ages.

It is a lot to take in, and we often hear about parents and other caretakers wanting to provide their children with honest but not frightening answers to the many questions they are raising. Here we offer you sample questions and suggested answers when your child asks about illness and the possibility of someone dying.

5 basic guidelines for answering a child’s questions:

In a previous blog, we identified five keys for how to approach answering children’s questions about difficult topics. Keeping these guidelines in mind, you can manage many questions your child will have.

1. Know yourself.

2. Know your child.

3. Create the best set-up for the conversation.

4. It is OK not to know how to answer at the moment.

5. Point out the helpers in each situation your child is concerned with.

Sample questions and suggested responses:

Let’s take the President’s bout with COVID as an example. Here are some common concerns your child might raise as well as some suggestions for how to manage them.

1. Will the President get better?

Possible response: “The President has wonderful doctors and the right medicines. He is already feeling better. He is back to doing all the things a President needs to do.”

This same approach could be used when talking about anyone who is ill and recovering, including you.

If the person is not yet clearly recovering, you can offer that they have doctors and medicines working every day to help them get better.

2. Will the President die?

Possible response: “The President is in good health and takes care of himself just like we do, so we expect him to be just fine.”

Our goal with these answers is to be calm and reassuring but honest. You can tell the truth without telling everything there is to know about the situation. What is most important is that what you do say is true to the best of your knowledge.

3. If The President can get COVID, does that mean that everyone is going to get it?

Possible response: “A lot of people are getting sick with COVID lately, but many people aren’t. We wear our masks. We wash our hands and use hand sanitizer. We try to see people outdoors when we can. We continue to do what is necessary to take good care of our bodies, like eating healthy foods, exercising, and going to bed on time, so we get enough sleep. All of these actions keep us strong and healthy, like President Biden. When you practice being healthy, you are stronger if you get sick.”

4. How did he get sick?

Possible response: “The President probably got COVID from being around someone else who had it but didn’t realize it. That’s why we try to be careful when we are around other people. Usually, we will be safe.”

The general approach:

As these answers show, it is possible to be truthful without being alarming. It is advisable to pause after you answer a question to allow your child time to take in what you have said. By checking in with them on your answers, you can make sure you are answering their question and not what you make of their question. Then you can ask if they have any more concerns.

Be prepared to spend the time it takes until your child is satisfied that they have the information and understanding their wonders require. Your child will continue to process your answers on their own, even while they go about their usual activities. This may raise more questions in their mind, so it is advisable to add that they can ask more questions anytime.

It is always important to keep in mind that the attention you pay your child is very comforting, as are the answers you strive to offer them. We believe that you can form a lasting and secure relationship with your child if you are consistently honest and attentive to their concerns.

Takeaway:

These questions about an illness affecting a person known to a child reflect that they are not just worried about the people in charge in the larger world. They are worried about the adults whom they rely on to take care of them in their day-to-day existence as well. They are worried about themselves, too. With this in mind, make sure you sort out your own feelings and think through what you actually know about an upsetting issue. By reminding yourself about what works for your child and listening to what your child is asking and what may underlie their questions, you can provide calming, honest, and reassuring responses.

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