How to Help Kids Understand Alzheimer’s

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Trying to explain Alzheimer’s to a little one can be a difficult task. As one mom shared, her own emotions about the diagnosis of one of her parents combined with the practicalities of care and the seemingly non-stop questions from the kids felt completely overwhelming for quite some time.

An Alzheimer’s diagnosis can, and does, impact the entire family, and little kids definitely pick up on things like tension and worry, even if you think you’re masking it. While there’s no easy way to start the conversation (and this won’t be a one-time conversation), there are a few things to consider as you work through this as a family:

Facts are important.

Young children pick up on parental stress. They also know when something doesn’t feel right. If a grandparent’s behavior toward a child changes without explanation, the child is at risk of internalizing negative emotions (i.e. grandma doesn’t want to be with me anymore). In the absence of information, children will create their own storylines.

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Although the news of the diagnosis might be upsetting and/or confusing, many children feel relief when they are given accurate information. If they understand, for instance, that the behavior is a function of the disease they are less likely to engage in self-blame.

Explain Alzheimer’s to your child using kid-friendly language. Keep your explanation fact-based but simple. Be prepared to repeat this information often. Most young children need time to process and ask the same questions repeatedly to gain mastery over the information.

Encourage questions.

Try to provide as many examples of behavioral changes your child might witness as possible to help your child understand what the disease will “look like” to a child. While adults can process medical terminology, children need specific observations to make sense of the information.

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Encourage your child to ask questions about what he sees or hears. In times of stress, young children try to find clues by listening in or drawing their own conclusions. Make sure your child knows that you will answer any question, even if it’s the same question over and over. It’s better to create a culture of communication than to keep kids in the dark.

Expect emotional shifts.

Kids are likely to experience a wide range of emotions when a loved one is coping with Alzheimer’s. Watch for these feelings and address them as they occur:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Rejection
  • Grief
  • Sadness
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Embarrassment
  • Loneliness

Steps to take as a family.

The best thing you can do is talk about it. Encourage your kids to verbalize their emotions about it, even if it’s hard to hear those emotions at times. Kids need to vent their feelings to make sense of what they’re experiencing.

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Create a culture of caring by involving your child in the following ways:

  • Encourage your child to make a scrapbook about her loved one.
  • Take family walks with your loved one or simply spend time engaged in calming activities together.
  • Reassure your child that showing affection (with words or hugs) still brings his loved one joy.
  • Try homemade cards and other crafts.
  • Remind your child that there will be good days and hard days. Be prepared to help your child cope with the hard days.

Above all, avoid putting your child in the caretaker role and make sure that your child continues with his normal daily activities. Routine and structure can be very calming for kids during times of family stress.

Has Alzheimer's affected your family?

 

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How to Help Kids Understand Alzheimer’s

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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