Children’s counselor offers advice when talking to your kids when a serious illness strikes your family

Howard Hand In Hand program at St. Joseph’s/Candler offers support to families dealing with terminal or chronic conditions

A cancer diagnosis is a scary thing. It can conjure complex feelings, anxieties and life changes.

Now imagine you are a 10-year-old child watching your parent go through that.  

Skye Cossio, St. Joseph's/Candler Howard Hand In Hand social worker

Skye Cossio is the St. Joseph’s/Candler Howard Hand In Hand social worker. It is her job to counsel children of parents who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, heart attack or stroke. She often sees children struggle with grades, society, anger, and home life, just as examples, once a parent becomes sick.

Howard Hand In Hand was created to provide support, education, guidance and resources to children, teens and families dealing with a limiting illness. Howard Family Dental pledged $150,000 to the St. Joseph’s/Candler Foundation to ensure children of sick patients get the help they need during a time of distress.

How to approach the initial conversation

One of the first hurdles when a parent, guardian, grandparent or other close relative is diagnosed with cancer – or any chronic or terminal disease – is how to tell their child. Cossio says there are two important factors to consider before having any conversation.

First, does the child have any indication of what is going on? Secondly, what is their knowledge base of cancer or the illness? These answers can help parents steer the initial discussion.

Five things to keep in mind when talking to your child about a cancer diagnosis or other medical issue

Each child and family dynamic is different; however, Cossio offers these pieces of advice to consider when talking to your children about a cancer diagnosis:

  1. Have an open-ended conversation by asking questions that require more thought and more than a “yes” or “no” answer. For example, instead of asking, “Do you know what cancer is?” ask “What is cancer?”
  2. Have the child direct the conversation by allowing him or her to ask questions
  3. Keep the conversation short. It’s OK to break up the discussion over multiple days, weeks or even months.
  4. When the child is ready to stop the conversation let him or her and resume talks later
  5. Try to be as honest as you can without overwhelming the child

“Cancer is always evolving and so is the conversation,” Cossio says. “You are the parent. You know what is best for your child. Trust your parenting instincts.”

Reactions to look for

How your child reacts to the news will vary and depends on his or her age, Cossio says.

Some may be scared of change immediately while others may bottle up their feelings. One thing Cossio says she often sees is a child reacting how the parent reacts. For example, if mom or dad is somber, the children will often be stoic, and vice versa, if the parents are crying, the kids are more likely to weep.

Cossio advises parents to tell their child’s school leaders about the situation. This may help teachers and counselors understand unusual behavior, like not turning in homework or sudden outbursts.

How Howard Hand In Hand can help

Cossio is available for one-on-one and family counseling and hosts support groups. The service is free to anyone in the Coastal Empire and Low Country of South Carolina. The parent with cancer or other serious illness does not have to receive treatment at St. Joseph’s/Candler. Howard Hand In Hand Logo

“I hope to help make life easier and less challenging through this tough time,” Cossio says. “That’s what I am here for – to help make this easier for the families by helping them navigate the system and helping them come up with a family plan.”

Howard Hand In Hand and St. Joseph’s/Candler also are excited to announce it will soon launch video conferencing. Cossio will be able to host online support groups or be available to video chat with children in need almost any time of the day.

Cossio directs parents to visit the Howard Hand In Hand website which includes several videos and resources to help children cope with a love one’s diagnosis.

You also can call 912-819-5669 to talk to a social worker or schedule an appointment. 

  • St. Joseph's Hospital Campus: 11705 Mercy Blvd., Savannah, GA 31419, (p) 912-819-4100
  • Candler Hospital Campus: 5353 Reynolds St., Savannah, GA 31405, (p) 912-819-6000
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St.Joseph's Hospital Campus: 912-819-4100

Candler Hospital Campus: 912-819-6000