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Discussing dementia with young children

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We grown-ups generally feel a responsibility to protect young children from any sadness or awkwardness surrounding delicate issues, like a close family member dealing with dementia. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of talking to them about the issue, rather than shielding them from it entirely.

It’s never easy when somebody close to us is affected by dementia, and it can be particularly difficult when approaching the subject with youngsters. Rather than being overly protective or even ignoring the subject altogether, it can be highly beneficial to discuss it to inform children of the disease and its effects.

The importance of actually talking about what’s going on should never be underestimated, but it can be difficult knowing how to approach the conversation in the first place.

Make the first move

Young children are often a lot more clever than we tend to realise. They’re good at picking up on emotions and tensions among loved ones, even though they may not fully understand a situation. In the case of an older family member dealing with dementia, they may begin to notice and even comment on small changes in a loved one’s behaviour.

While this may trigger the need for a discussion, it can be helpful for you to make the first move if the subject hasn’t already arisen. There’s never going to be an ideal moment to approach it, but it’s certainly beneficial to do it sooner rather than later. By including youngsters in the dementia conversation early, you can equip them with a basic level of knowledge and understanding as they start to make sense of the situation.

Remember that honesty is often the best policy and withholding the information from them early on can end up having negative effects later in life. They may even find the situation difficult to cope with as things unfold. Rather than focus on any negatives, reassure them that they can be open about their thoughts and feelings.

Encourage any questions

Even though children are extremely good at picking up on moods, they may not fully understand the situation. They may start to ask “why” an older family member acts the way they do, and “what’s wrong” when others appear quiet or upset. Children are naturally curious and the best way for them to learn about anything is by asking.

As adults, we have certain ‘barriers’ around our attitudes to difficult subjects – we generally talk about things in euphemisms, if at all. Young children, however, can be a bit blunt and direct, potentially catching you off guard. You don’t have to be as blunt in your responses, but do try to address the concerns they have.

Remember that this will likely be the child’s first knowledge of the condition, so it will need to be in terms that they can understand. Dementia can be difficult to comprehend at the best of times, so you’ll never be able to fully explain it to a young child.

Use child-friendly language and a soft tone of voice to help them form a basis for their further experience of the condition as the world around them unfolds. However, you should also use your own wisdom and discretion to decide what is necessary and appropriate to share.

Easy-to-understand examples

If you’re struggling to get the message across, there are various materials available that can help in this particular situation.

Picture books – like “Grandma” by Jessica Shepherd and “Really and Truly” by Émilie Rivard and Anne-Claire Delisle – approach the subject of dementia in the family delicately but effectively. While reading these stories, you could also encourage a child how they feel about people in the story, or how they might react in the same position.

There is also a youth-dedicated section of the Alzheimer’s Research UK website. It features information, activities and quotes from real children and teenagers, filled with easily relatable language for youngsters to understand. You may even want to put some time aside to go through this information with them as a collaborative activity.

Encourage them to share how they truly feel and don’t be afraid to share your own feelings. All in all, you just need to be open and caring, to reassure them that they can speak to you about their concerns regarding a close one dealing with dementia. This way, they can slowly develop a greater understanding of a condition that’s often difficult to understand.