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Talking With Your Children About HIV


This is an excerpt from There is Hope: Learning to Live with HIV, 2nd Edition,
written by Janice Ferri, with Richard R. Roose and Jill Schwendeman, a publication of The HIV Coalition.

A difficult decision you face as a parent is when, if, and how to tell your child about your own or their HIV infection. Children have varying abilities to cope depending on their age and situation. A lot of people will be eager to offer you advice, but don't be pressured. It's your family, and you know your child best.

For the most part, very young children understand and care about only what immediately affects them. Most parents choose to offer basic explanations when questions come up, and stop there. Because kids often forget things or listen selectively, it's best to use the simple approach. However, even young children have done well with more information when the parent follows the child's cue.

To protect your family from discrimination, you may want to be careful how you talk about HIV around your child until she or he develops a sense of discretion. Also, it is important to teach young children to get help if someone is bleeding, and not to touch other people's blood or let anyone touch theirs without gloves.

Some parents talk to their school-age children frankly, shielding them only from the tougher realities of HIV. If you choose this route, pay close attention to the signals your kids send. A child may react differently at various points in time. Sometimes children will deny that they or someone in their family is infected, even when they have heard the facts directly. Do your best to anticipate their responses over time to be as supportive as you can.

Children can be terribly afraid of death or illness. Parents and family are a child's whole world; the idea of losing that can be impossible for them to imagine. Many times children can't emotionally afford to talk. Don't force your child to "face facts" in order to make yourself feel better. Indicate that you are willing to talk, and open up opportunities for communication. Children have all the anxieties about HIV that you do, but they are not yet fully equipped to process these feelings. Now is the time to let your kids know you love them more than ever.

Young people may also respond to HIV by acting out or doing poorly at school, reverting to bedwetting or other behaviors they had outgrown, or becoming sullen or aggressive toward other children. They may withdraw into escapes such as computer games, television, friends, or drugs. Intervene if you feel your children's escapes have become destructive in any way; but remember that, like denial, escaping behaviors can serve as a buffer against matters that are too difficult or painful for them to face.

Often, parents choose not to discuss HIV with school-age children. This could be your best option if you sense your child does not want to talk or could not handle the news. However, kids are intelligent and sensitive little human beings. They can pick up on very subtle cues, and may be more aware of the situation than you think. Without a channel for open communication, your child could develop scary misconceptions about HIV, or be getting the message that it's something to be ashamed of and kept secret. This can create a very stressful situation. If you sense this is what's happening in your family, let your children know they can come to you or someone else to talk, even if only to acknowledge what is going on.

Some parents don't talk to their children because they can't bear the thought of it. Maybe inside, you feel that if you don't talk about HIV, it won't be real. Maybe you have feelings of guilt or sadness that you'd rather not think about.

If you are trying to get a handle on your own feelings or on what path to take with your child, discuss your situation with your case manager, a relative, or a trusted friend. Try to create situations where your child can communicate freely. Consider consulting a psychologist or social worker who works with children for more help.

Personal Perspectives on Talking With Kids About HIV

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This article was provided by HIV Coalition (HIVCO).
See Also's Just Diagnosed Resource Center
Telling Others You're HIV Positive
More Advice on Telling Others You Have HIV/AIDS