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Talking with Kids About Inheritable Illnesses


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.

Now if your daughter were 8 years old rather than 14, it would be a different situation. With a younger child you'd soften your answer with vague generalities mainly because her mind is not equipped to tackle the impact of the information. At age 14, however, with her mental capacity expanding daily as she moves through adolescence, she's much more capable of grasping, processing, and putting into place the information she's seeking.

Give credit to the health teacher. The teacher asked the question, most likely knowing that some of the kids in class have such family medical histories as yours. She realizes that it's appropriate to her students' age and development to begin to comprehend and emotionally manage the impact -- for good or for bad -- that this information might bring.

Encourage Her to Learn More

As you offer up this information to your daughter, do so with solid information and knowledge. Also, go with her to the library and search the Internet for sound medical information on these diseases. By doing so, you'll be modeling the importance of acquiring factual information rather than relying on myths and anecdotal information.

No parent wants to shatter childhood's innocence with harsh realities, but sometimes it's necessary. Your daughter is old enough, likely smart enough, and emotionally strong enough to mange the truth about her family's medical history.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, May 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.