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Is not knowing of mom's AIDS stopping son's healing process?

Sep 15, 1997

I am a social worker dealing in children's mental health in a mid size rural community. I am dealing now with a young male who is receiving intensive out of the home treatment for mental illness, major depression. This child has many special needs including a lower than average intellect. The mother has AIDS, and has not been able to tell her son of the specific illness, rather lets him know each time she gets sick and then better again. Many of the professionals surrounding this child are insistent that this child is unable to heal any further living with the worries surrounding a persistent illness, and having multiple death experiences of close family members yet not knowing what his mother is truly dealing with. How do I, as a Social Worker, wade through mom's legitimate reasons for not telling her son and weigh them against true apparent needs of her son?

Response from Mr. Shernoff

You are dealing with a painful and complicated issue surrounding a parent's desire to protect her loved one. In all of my clinical experience supervising social workers dealing with this issue, it is amazing how frequently it arises. The general consensus is that there is hardly ever a sound clinical reason not to be completely honest with the child, even if he does have some impaired intellectual functioning. It seems that there are several professionals colluding with the mother about why the son should not know. He has a right to know all the information about what is happening to his mother, and the tasks for the professionals involved are to help him develop places to express his feelings about his mother's illness and at the same time finding information written in a language he can understand that will give him information about AIDS. Additionally family sessions can be a potentially very healing place for the mother and son to talk about their feelings for each other and about the reality that the illness might result in the son losing his mother. There are several wonderful books written for children whose parents are living with HIV/AIDS. I would urge you to locate them and have them available as resources. Good Luck. Michael Shernoff, MSW

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