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Tips for talking to kids about your chronic illness

This post is sponsored by HealthBeacon plc.

There’s no escaping the impact our health can sometimes have on our kids’ lives. As a mom of three and living with rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain and fatigue can change how I am able to parent. When my children were small, there were times I couldn’t physically pick them up or carry them. Today, I sometimes struggle to get down on the floor to play. I often need my rest or have to go to a doctor’s appointment and that can conflict with things my kids want to do. 

I think it’s really important to help my children understand my chronic illness – but that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy thing to talk about. So here are my five best tips for talking to kids about your chronic illness:

  1. Use age-appropriate facts

It’s important to be honest with my kids about the true nature of my diagnosis, but I’m careful to choose age-appropriate facts when deciding what to say. Explaining my chronic illness to my kids isn’t a talk that we’ll have once and then they understand everything; it’s an ongoing discussion that will need to grow and change as they do.

When kids are small, you can keep it general and simple. For example, I would tell my toddlers things like “Mama has an owie, so you need to be gentle” or “Mama is feeling extra tired, let’s read a book together instead of riding bikes today.” As kids get older, you can start discussing your chronic illness in more detail. With my older kids, I’ve started discussing how many different joints there are in our bodies, how an immune system is supposed to work, and what happens when my immune system gets confused. The most important thing is to create a dialogue about my health that my kids can understand. 

  1. Be reassuring.

While I do think it’s important to be honest with my kids about the facts of my chronic illness, I also know it can be scary for kids to witness one of their parents being sick or feeling pain. My kids often react to my own emotions, so I always try to stay hopeful and reassuring whenever we discuss my health. I encourage my kids to share their own feelings about the situation, express any concerns they might have, and remind them they can ask as many questions as they want. 

  1. Let kids get involved.

Since my health does impact my whole family, I find it beneficial to let my kids get involved in doing something to help me feel better. Even small children can “help”.  For example, younger children can help by bringing a pillow or sharing a stuffed animal with a parent who needs to rest. Older children can help by taking chores off your hands. For us, chores include things like taking out the trash or carrying heavy laundry baskets up the stairs. I think my kids appreciate knowing there are things they can  do to help when I am not feeling well. 

It can also be valuable to let my kids see for themselves that I take medicine to treat my chronic illness. I take my medication via self-injection, so if my kids are interested, I allow them to watch me inject my medication and then I show them how I dispose of my needles in a safe sharps container. If you get your medication via infusion or even if you just have a doctor’s appointment, you can also give your kids the opportunity to accompany you to see for themselves that you are getting good care. 

  1. Read a book together.

If you need some help getting this conversation started, especially with younger kids, there are a number of great children’s books that can help. While some of these books mention a specific illness, all have general information to help children understand chronic pain and why a parent’s physical abilities may change from day to day. You can read reviews of each book at the links below:

  1. Remember the bright side. 

While there can certainly be downsides to having a parent with a chronic illness, I find it encouraging to remember that there’s a bright side too. My health has created opportunities for my kids to truly learn broader life lessons. They’ve learned gratitude for all the things our bodies can do, and they’ve had first-hand experience with compassion and kindness. They’ve also learned that you shouldn’t judge someone by how they look on the outside. And they know in their hearts that strength isn’t always about muscles – sometimes strength is nothing more than getting back up when you fall down or making the decision to try again tomorrow. 

Mariah Leach is a writer, patient advocate, and mom of three living with rheumatoid arthritis. After learning firsthand the challenges of facing pregnancy and motherhood with a chronic illness, Mariah has become passionate about supporting women with chronic illnesses who are or want to become mothers. She launched Mamas Facing Forward, a support group and resource for moms with chronic illness, in 2015.

*Content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not substitute professional medical advice. Always consult and follow the instructions of your healthcare provider and any patient information leaflet for your medication.

This post is sponsored by HealthBeacon plc and the author was compensated. The author does not use Smart Sharps Bin. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of HealthBeacon plc or Hamilton Beach Brands, Inc.

Caregivers Life with Chronic Illness

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