Stroke recovery Explaining stroke to kids August 26 2015
Nick Petrovic Author Nick Petrovic Psychologist

Has a grandparent, a friend or other loved one recently had a stroke? We offer some tips on explaining stroke to kids of all ages.

Stroke can affect everyone close to the survivor, and children are no exception. Whether your child is curious about the physical effects, scared by emotional ups or downs, or simply confused about why things have changed, explaining stroke to children can be daunting for any parent.

To tell or not to tell?

As parents, our first reaction is often to protect our kids, and while it can be tempting to do this by not telling them what's happened, the reality is that kids can be extremely perceptive. They're often more aware of their surroundings than we might think, so it's important that we talk to them about the stroke in a way that makes sense to them. Not explaining stroke to children can leave them feeling confused because they will know that something has changed when it comes to their loved one.

Talking about stroke

Children and adolescents may want to know what caused the stroke, or might wonder whether they or you will have one. They might ask questions about how strokes can be avoided, and whether it will happen again. Remember, what may seem obvious to you might not be to a child, so make sure you reassure them that their loved one is getting the help that they need.
It’s important to explain why the stroke has changed the person's body or appearance. If a loved one is unable to talk or play with your child like they used to, it’s important to make sure you help your child understand that they haven't done anything wrong.
Stroke survivors can experience emotional and personality changes. Emotional outbursts, crying and frustration can be confusing for a kid, especially if they don't completely understand why it's happening. A good way to explain these changes to a child can be to explain that, like the body, emotions can be affected when the brain sustains damage.
A father and daughter talking about stroke

Consider their age when explaining stroke to kids

A child's age and developmental stage will affect how they make sense of stroke and how they may react. 

Age 2–6

Young children tend to believe that the world around them is directly affected by their own behaviours and may think that they're somehow to blame for the stroke. 

They might also believe that all illnesses are contagious and worry that they'll also get sick. Try explaining stroke to children  in simple terms and reassure them they are not to blame in any way, that strokes aren’t catching, and that their loved one is getting the help they need. 

Age 7–11

 As children get older, they're able to understand illness in more detail. They may want to know what happens when someone has a stroke, what can cause it and what the symptoms are. Keep things simple and try to remain as open and honest as possible when explaining stroke to kids of this age. Some children may turn to the internet for more information; to avoid misinformation, you might want to suggest looking it up together, guiding them to reputable sources such as EnableMe, and discussing what you find.

Age 12 and older

 During a family crisis, teenagers often want to be kept in the loop, and may be upset if they feel left out. They may want to know specific details about the treatment and what the possible outcomes are. However, don't feel upset if your teen would prefer to speak to another adult instead, like a doctor, psychologist or family friend. When explaining stroke to kids who are in their teens, you can speak to them like you would a fellow adult.

Children are naturally inquisitive, and will ask all sorts of questions. Listen to their fears and try to answer them as honestly as you can in a way you think they will understand. 

Remember, each child will react differently, but it may help to keep a sense of normalcy by sticking to regular routines as much as possible. Keep on the lookout for any signs of emotional distress, which can range from bedwetting to lack of appetite and difficulty sleeping, and if you are worried about your child’s reaction in any way ask your GP for help. You can also ask your loved one’s stroke care team to help by providing resources for explaining stroke to kids.

Enableme is a new website where you can talk to, and seek support from other people who have had a stroke. It is a place to ask questions, to find the answers that you need and to set recovery goals. It is a place where you can offer support, encourage others, and share your experiences.
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Nick Petrovic Author Nick Petrovic Psychologist Nick Petrovic is a psychologist and writer.