When a family experiences a significant health event, such as illness, injury, or death, it has an impact on everyone. For children especially, it often leads to confusion and questions: Why are we spending so much time at the hospital? What are all of the different medicines for? Why do members of our family seem sad or angry?
As parents struggle with decisions about treatment options and how to pay for them, children can pick up on their emotions, internalizing the stress and uncertainty.
Psychologists recommend honest communication with young children, explaining in an age-appropriate way as much as possible about the diagnosis, treatment, and potential consequences of the situation. Being truthful is important so that children can maintain trust in their parents and receive comfort throughout the process.
Having these difficult conversations can also help parents address the concerns and anxieties that many children experience. One way to start is by reading and discussing books. Like all of us, children connect with stories, and may receive comfort from hearing about others in similar situations.
Below are some of our recommendations for books that address issues which children in your life may be facing.
Stories for Children with Serious or Chronic Illnesses
Little Tree: A Story for Children with Serious Medical Problems, by Joyce C. Mills, and Brian Sebern
After Little Tree loses some of its branches in a storm, it must deal with fear, self-blame and worry as it heals. A story of strength and resilience, children facing serious illnesses or difficult recoveries may connect with Little Tree’s struggles and realization that she can still live fruitfully and happily.
The Brave Souls Club, by Danielle Viverito, and Michaela Anne Oteri
This self-published book by an author who has experienced pediatric illness herself addresses one of the most common questions children face: “why me?” The author also aims to provide both older and younger children with a sense of control in situations that can often make them feel helpless.
Toilet Paper Flowers: A Story for Children about Crohn’s Disease, by Frank J. Sileo, PhD, and Martha Gradisher
Julia is excited to have a friend come over, but also nervous because her Crohn’s disease means she has to use the bathroom so often. By creating her toilet paper flowers, Julia is able to share about her illness and gain her friend’s support. This educational book also features explanations of the disease and treatments, a glossary, and instructions for making toilet paper flowers.
Even Superheroes Get Diabetes, by Sue Ganz-Schmitt, and Micah Chambers-Goldberg
Kelvin is a little boy who loves superheroes. After he is diagnosed with diabetes, he must endure endless needle pricks, injections and visits to the doctor. Things get really interesting when Kelvin discovers he has the superpowers to help other children who have diabetes. With comic-book illustrations and educational diagrams, this book manages to provide both humor and information, things that any newly diagnosed diabetic can appreciate.
For children, difficult health events often lead to confusion. One way to start honest conversations is by reading books.Click to tweet
Stories for Sibling and Friends
What About Me?: When Brothers and Sisters Get Sick, by Allan Peterkin, MD, and Frances Middendorf
When Laura’s brother becomes ill and must stay at the hospital, she works through her confusion and expresses all her worries. This book also advises parents on how to help siblings cope.
Hi, My Name Is Jack, by Christina Beall-Sullivan, MS, APRN
Written by a neonatal intensive care nurse, this book focuses on the emotions of healthy siblings as Jack introduces his sister, Molly, who has been sick several times since she was born. Based on research completed during her Masters in Nursing program, the author focuses on five significant issues: loneliness, anger, worry, jealousy, and guilt.
Sometimes, by Rebecca Elliott
When his big sister Clemmie has to go to the hospital, Toby comes along. and together, they face their fears and make the hospital a better place to be. This 32-page book celebrates sibling friendships and supports children who care for disabled siblings.
When Someone Has a Very Serious Illness: Children Can Learn to Cope with Loss and Change, by Marge Heegaard
A resource for younger children with activities that can also be adapted for pre-adolescents, this workbook teaches basic concepts of illness and various coping mechanisms.
Stories about Death and Loss
Gentle Willow: A Story for Children about Dying, by Joyce C. Mills, and Cary Pillo
Amanda the squirrel and Little Tree discover that their friend, Gentle Willow, is ill and cannot be cured. To comfort her and ease her fears, they tell her the story of how caterpillars transform into yellow butterflies and stay by her side during her final days.
The Scar, by Charlotte Moundlic, and Olivier Tallec
When a young boy awakens to find that his mother has passed away after a long illness, he shuts all the windows to keep her smell inside and scratches himself so he can imagine her voice comforting him. It takes an uninvited, but ultimately successful intervention from his grandmother to bring him out of his emotional isolation. This starkly beautiful and honest portrayal of grief and acceptance can help bring comfort to children who feel overwhelmed by the loneliness of losing a parent.
The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers
After losing the father figure who taught her to embrace her curiosity and explore the world, a young girl puts her heart into a bottle to protect it from getting hurt. Doing so, however, takes away her sense of wonder at life. As an adult, she meets a girl who still holds that wonder and who helps remove the heart from the bottle. Using an abstract metaphor to explore grief, this book reminds us of the importance of letting in both pain and joy.
Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies, by Janis Silverman
An art therapy and activity book, these exercises help children prepare for the death of someone special and allow them to process their grief. Children are invited to express their emotions freely through prompts such as “Draw about some of the things you cannot control” and “Write or draw the things you have kept that belonged to your special person.”