How to Talk to a Parent of a Sick Child

Posted on July 4, 2016

Do you ever struggle with knowing what to say in difficult situations? You’re not alone.

Wanting to comfort someone who’s suffering, but not knowing how is something many of us experience, including here at Ronald McDonald House Charities Southern & Central Alberta.

Our Houses in Red Deer and Calgary are full of compassionate families, volunteers and staff, but, many have struggled with this at one time or another. When it comes to interacting with families going through one of the scariest times of their life, it can be hard to know what to say. That’s why we were thrilled when Kyla, a mother staying at the Calgary House, generously offered to share her insight on this topic.

Thomson Family Portraits November 7, 2015 (Print)-9995 Kyla and her daughter, Bella, enjoy quality time together while staying in Calgary for Bella’s medical treatment.

Kyla stayed at our House for over 550 days while her daughter, Bella, received treatment at Alberta Children’s Hospital. Shortly before returning home to Swift Current earlier this month, Kyla led a seminar for RMH staff, sharing her knowledge and answering questions many of us had. Her advice was so helpful, we wanted to share it with you.

Here are Kyla’s Do’s and Dont’s of talking to parents with a sick child:

  1. Don’t ask how they are doing. As Kyla puts it, “you wouldn’t ask someone who’s drowning  how they’re doing”. This might be surprising. For many of us, pairing “how are you?” with “hi” is so second nature, we don’t realize we’re doing it. Even so, responding to this question is extremely difficult for a parent with a sick child. Especially when they’ve already been asked that day by every family member, friends and co-worker.
  2. Do smile and say hello. It’s a simple greeting that leaves the door open for a parent to chat if they want to, without feeling obligated. Often, that’s more than enough.
  3. Don’t make comparisons. While they may seem harmless, statements like “she’s so tiny for her age!” are upsetting because they compare a child to the “norm” and other children who haven’t had the same obstacles.
  4. Do give compliments. Things like “I love your shirt” or “Your daughter has the best laugh” are things everyone loves to hear.
  5. Don’t ask too many questions. Instead of initiating conversation by asking questions that parents might not want to talk about, let them control the dialogue by sharing what they’d like, at their own pace. This is the best way to ensure they are comfortable.
  6. Do take time to gage a parents mood before approaching them. If you’re like most of us, it may feel weird – or even downright rude – to study someone from afar, but as Kyla puts it, ” we don’t notice. And if we do, we don’t care”. Parents with a sick child have so much else on their mind, they are not paying attention to what others are doing. Reading non-verbal cues before speaking with a parent can offer helpful insight into what to say or what they might need.
  7. Don’t feel like you always have to talk. If a parent seems like they want to be left alone, then leave them alone. Sometimes the best thing you can do for the parent of a sick child is give them space.
  8. Do try to learn as much about their situation as possible before talking to them. If you’re up-to-date on their situation, you can avoid saying anything that may accidentally be upsetting or congratulate them on positive news.
  9. Don’t be afraid to redirect conversations that are breaking some of these rules. If a parent looks uncomfortable with a conversation that is taking place, don’t be afraid to interruptThey will appreciate it.
  10. Do what they need, without asking. This might seem impossible, but it’s actually one of the easiest. So often, we ask parents of sick children – and anyone else going through a difficult time, for that matter – if there is anything we can do to help. We’re rarely taken up on our offers because those we ask don’t want to be an inconvenience. Taking it upon ourselves to do something without asking has a bigger impact than we probably realize. For example, our families are responsible for their own dishes at the Houses. Washing someone’s dishes is a small act of kindness that goes an incredibly long way for someone who is overwhelmed.

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