Talking with Kids About Inheritable Illnesses

How to talk to your child about your family medical history and genetic illnesses.

Be Forward and Truthful

Q. After a recent unit in health class, my 14-year-old daughter has been asking about our family medical history. In truth, there's a great deal of illness on both sides of her lineage -- from schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis on her father's side, to bipolar disorder and cancer on mine (her maternal genes).

While I try to be as open as I can with her, I know these are scary diseases, and often aren't diagnosed until older ages. I don't want to scare her. Is now the time to be fully honest?

A. Since she's asking, it's definitely time to offer up information about her medical lineage. She needs to know. While it's not necessary to lay out all the complicated medical implications of these potential diseases, it is important to let her in on the fact that many of the medical issues in your family have genetic tendencies. Include in your statements to her that while she may have inherited some of the genetic packaging for these medical conditions, they won't surface until she older, that medicine has progressed and will continue to do so, and that early diagnosis is best, therefore, it's important she be informed.

Too Much Information?

Will you scare her by these truths? Maybe. More likely, she'll have questions and will want to investigate the possibility of acquiring any of these conditions. She may imagine that she's experiencing some of the symptoms; if so, take her to the doctor for a checkup. Most likely she'll shrug off the possibility of acquiring the any one of these diseases, as teens typically see themselves as invincible.

Let's take the opposite position, where you keep her from the knowing about her family members' medical history. What if you say, "We're a very healthy family; you have good medical genetics"? And then your daughter does acquire one of these inherited medical diseases? She discovers that you lied to protect her. If this situation occurs, she'd be furious with you, even feel betrayed, particularly if an early diagnosis could have made the condition less severe and more treatable.

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