How to navigate difficult conversations about health and illness during the holidays

For many, the holidays are a time when friends and family gather, and sometimes even the most well-intentioned loved ones might ask questions about a child’s behavioral health, medical diagnosis or hospitalization. While these conversations can be awkward or difficult for families, having a plan to answer such personal questions will help you navigate what you think is important to share and what you would rather keep private.

At Nationwide Children’s Hospital, my colleagues and I recommend these five tips to help families and patients feel more prepared as they enter the holiday season:

1. Family Discussion

Encourage conversations with immediate family in the home to share your feelings regarding previous or current medical experiences/diagnosis. Remember, even with family, you can set ground rules for the discussion to help create a safe space for sharing. By outlining parameters and expectations for the conversation, you and your family can feel comfortable directing the dialogue.

[Read: 5 Ways To Help Our Daughters Develop a Positive Body Image.]

2. Establish Boundaries

Identify what is shareable and what is private by exploring your and your child’s feelings through open discussion. Once you’ve established your personal and familial boundaries, practice as a family how to decline talking about a topic and how to change the conversation. For example, your child may say, “I don’t really want to talk about that right now, but thank you for asking. Want to play?” Using language like this will demonstrate to the asker that you or your child appreciate their concern, but that the topic might be sensitive.

3. Reframe the Experience

Sometimes, it’s easy to dwell on negative experiences or be frustrated by questions about sensitive topics. Consider reframing uncomfortable or difficult experiences by remembering the support and strengths of each family member during particularly tough times. This practice can help you make the most of the resources that surround you and your family.

[See: 10 Things Pediatricians Advise That Parents Ignore — and Really Shouldn’t.]

4. Rehearse Responses

Of course, it’s always a good idea to practice how you might respond to different questions. For friends or loved ones, it’s OK to share different amounts or types of information based on the relationship. For example, when talking to an acquaintance your child could say, “Yes, I was in the hospital, but now I’m doing better. How are you?” Having a go-to response can help relieve any anxiety surrounding situations where you or your child know you might be asked health-related questions.

5. Explore Coping Strategies

If you know your child might feel overwhelmed during gatherings, talk about how and who to signal when they need support. This can be as simple as a phrase or a signal to indicate that they’d like to leave the current conversation or go somewhere quiet. You can also bring comfort items with you to holiday functions. For a child, these may include a familiar book, stuffed animal, or toys. By having different coping strategies, managing difficult conversations can be less overwhelming.

During the holidays, you and your family can come up with a plan that feels like the right fit for your experience and preferences. It can also be helpful to check in with your child following a holiday event to see how he or she is feeling after interactions.

[See: 12 Questions You Should Ask Your Kids at Dinner.]

If you would like to provide support to a loved one with a child who was recently hospitalized, is currently experiencing an illness or is living with a chronic condition, try asking open-ended questions to let the family or child disclose as much or as little information as they’d like. By allowing the family to take the lead in the conversation and communicating compassion, you can help make the holidays a comfortable and enjoyable time for all.

More from U.S. News

Healthy Holiday Desserts and Snacks

8 Ways to Ease Holiday Isolation for Older Adults

7 Healthy Ways to Deal With Working Over the Holidays

How to Navigate Difficult Conversations About Health and Illness During the Holidays originally appeared on

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up