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5 Tips to Talk to Your Child About Their Diagnosis

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It’s important to talk to your child about their diagnoses — whether it’s a mental health issue, a physical illness or a learning disability.

Here are helpful tips to open up that conversation.

1. Use metaphors. 

Children respond well when you compare their diagnosis to something concrete. I’ve found that using the tomato plant metaphor found in the book “What To Do When You Worry Too Much,” by Dawn Huebner is an excellent conversation starter to talk about anxiety. Other helpful metaphors may be: the brain and a computer (for learning disabilities), the body and a machine (for physical illnesses) or whatever other helpful thing you may think of. The more relevance to the child, the better. Children tend to respond better and be more attentive if you use a character from a favorite TV show or book they enjoy.

2. Talk about strengths first. 

This is so important! It’s great relief when the child knows they have amazing strengths along with their difficulties. More importantly, it’s crucial to do this first before talking about the diagnosis. If possible, link these strengths to their challenges. For example, if a child has been diagnosed with a learning disability, it’s important to share with them how their strengths counterbalance this diagnosis.


3. Teach them about self-advocacy.

Self-advocacy is the ability to speak for your own needs. It helps the person with a disability gain knowledge about the tools and resources they have, enabling their independence. As children grow older they must be able to use their own voice — not their parents nor teachers — to talk about their challenges and needed accommodations. This is something that can be practiced at home when you encourage (and teach) your child to tell you what they need in an assertive manner. “Understood” is a wonderful community with great resources on how to talk to your child about self-advocacy.

4. Give them role models. 

Whenever you receive a diagnosis, a sense of denial, discouragement or disappointment can take over. You might feel you’re alone and that no one else understands you. That’s why communities like “The Mighty” are so beneficial, it helps broaden your supportive network and helps you share common experiences with those going through the same difficulty you are. With children, the same rule applies. I often gather a list of people who share their illness or disability and turn it into a trivia game. Give them random pieces of information — including the diagnosis — and make them guess who the person is. Their faces of shock when they find out that athletes, artists or movie stars had the same difficulties growing up is priceless! But, more importantly, it sparks back the sense of hope they, too, will be OK.

5. Ask. 

If you’re still unsure on how to open this conversation ask the specialists. You can even ask for a separate session in which both the parent and specialist can talk to the child about their diagnosis.

Coming to terms with a diagnosis, could be a difficult process for both the child and the family. But, it also offers an opportunity to grow their bond and push through to become even a stronger family unit than before.

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Thinkstock image by sergio_kumer

Originally published: August 14, 2017
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