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How to Talk to Your Child About Their Diagnosis


Taylor Offtermatt, 15, was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Scoliosis when she was 6 years old.

No child should have to spend significant time in a hospital and no parent should have to discuss a complex medical diagnosis with their own child.

Being able to have the conversation in a clear and confident manner is essential to helping your child process the situation, and will lay the groundwork for everything that follows, but talking to your child about their diagnosis doesn’t have to be a solo pursuit.

You are not alone. Your family has real, life-changing support at Gillette Children’s. 

While in the initial phases of navigating your child’s diagnosis, we recommend that you use this resource to help you have the initial conversation, maintain an ongoing dialogue, and find the support your family needs.  

How to Have an Initial Conversation With Your Child About Their DiagnosisCaleb and his mother at Gillette

First and foremost, be confident in knowing this is your decision. There’s no set rule on when to talk with your child about their diagnosis.  

Some parents may tell their child about their diagnosis when the child is quite young, and as they become aware of their differences and start to ask specific questions.  

Other parents may wait until their child is slightly older, because they feel the child will better process and understand the diagnosis.  

Additional points to consider during initial conversations include:  

  • Talking to your child often about the diagnosis instead of one big sit-down conversation. This can help them to integrate the information into their daily life, which allows them to establish proper baselines regarding what should be expected. 
  • Using age-appropriate information and concepts so your child can properly process the information. 
  • Answering all your child’s questions honestly. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. You, your child and your family will be navigating this situation together, so trust is going to be an essential component throughout the process.   
  • Having the conversation with a friend or family member as a trial run, since this can be an extremely emotional experience. It will allow you to better manage your own nerves while working through some difficult points of the conversation.  

Tips for Talking to Your Child About Their DiagnosisA young child in a wheelchair and her mother looking out a window

Finding ways to talk with your child about their diagnosis will depend on their age and their ability to process the conversation. Following some of the basic guidelines below can ensure you provide the information in a way that will best suit your child and allow them to understand what you’re trying to convey. 

Speaking to a 3- to 6-year-old

At this age, children can understand their diagnosis when explained in simple terms. You can introduce the name of their medical condition as well as simple facts about the treatment they may need.  

It’s important to reassure them they didn’t cause their condition through something they did or said. Reassure them you’ll be there for them throughout the entire process.  

During the conversation, you can even incorporate play techniques to ease their mind. Perhaps speak with the doctor to see if your child can touch unfamiliar machines or supplies that will be used in the procedure and treatment to let them see it isn’t scary, but actually something that’s going to help them feel much better. 

Speaking to a 7- to 12-year-old

Children in this age range are more capable of understanding and processing a more detailed explanation of their specific diagnosis.  

At this age, kids are likely to get information from their peers in school and the community, so encourage them to ask you questions to better navigate the situation together and sift through information that isn’t helpful.  

Speaking with them about all aspects of the diagnosis, including procedures and treatments they may experience, is helpful to prepare their minds for the process. It also empowers them to be involved throughout the entire journey. 

Speaking to a 13- to 18-year-old

Teens are capable of understanding a complex explanation of their diagnosis and may have many detailed questions for you. They may be interested in learning more about their diagnosis, so directing them to trusted online sources is important if they’re using the internet to seek information.  

Remind them that people receive various diagnoses, and those diagnoses aren’t a result of any risky behavior or poor decision-making on their part. Throughout it all, remain open and ready to have honest communications with your child as well as encourage them to remain involved with their supportive peers.  

It might also help to encourage them to speak to a therapist or psychologist if they’re bottling up their emotions. The key is to establish consistent communication throughout the process. 

How to Maintain a Productive, Ongoing Conversation with Your Child About Their Diagnosis 

A young Gillette patient in a wheelchair and her motherRegardless of where you are in the process, or how old your child is when you decide to speak to them about their diagnosis, remember these two key elements to make the situation easier for everyone: trust and communication.  

When trust is established between you and your child regarding their diagnosis, the conversation can create a deeper connection between you two.  

If you can establish trust with your child at the onset and work to foster consistent communication throughout the process, you can manage and work through even difficult topics.   

At the end of the day, there is no perfect way for parents to have conversations about their child’s diagnosis. It’s important that parents go easy on themselves and work to manage their stress throughout the process so that when the time comes to speak with the child, the parent’s emotions are in check before the talk.  

Simple tips for parents during this process include taking a few deep breaths, focusing on positive outcomes, and remembering that your child is looking to you for strength.  

How Gillette Children’s Can Help You Sort Through a Childhood Diagnosis 

Gillette Children’s is dedicated to providing exceptional care and support throughout any diagnosis. Our team of expertly trained medical staff, clinical specialists, nurses and technicians work together to best meet every child’s unique needs.  

Regardless of your child’s diagnosis, our goal is to provide them with comprehensive, compassionate care, and provide your family with support, resources and community. Ethan Johnson's mother helping him put on his skates.

If you have a child with a newly diagnosed condition, please check out our parent support and resources, or contact us to speak with a specialist and to get your questions answered.