By Dr Louise Dalton and Dr Elizabeth Rapa of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry.
Research has shown that effective communication with children about parental illness has long term benefits for children and their family’s physical and mental health. These include better child psychological well-being, as well as lower reported symptoms of depression, anxiety and behavioural problems. It also has benefits for parental mental health, adherence to treatment (such as following the prescribed drug regime) and family functioning.
However, adults find sharing a diagnosis with children one of the most difficult experiences. Understandably, they want to protect children from distress and many feel uncertain about whether children need to be told, or when and how to navigate these sensitive conversations. Yet, children are “astute observers” and are often acutely aware of changes within the family. Silence about what is happening risks children misinterpreting the situation and worrying alone, without access to the emotional support they need.
Previous research has found that patients want help from their clinical team to think about what, how and when to share their diagnosis with children, or how to answer questions such as “Are you going to die?” – but often report finding this support difficult to find. However, few studies have asked healthcare professionals about how they perceive their role regarding the needs of patients’ wider families. A team from the Department of Psychiatry interviewed 24 NHS clinicians from different professional backgrounds and working across a range of specialties to find out more about their views and experiences regarding the needs of patients’ children.