How to Talk to a Sick Kid, From a Former Sick Kid

By the start of first grade, Molly M., of Minnesota, had learned the ropes of health care.

A survivor of brain tumor surgeries at ages 2 and 6, she had endured enough needle-pokes to take charge of IV technicians aiming for her best veins.

On more than one occasion, the freckle-faced kid with bangs looked a phlebotomist in the eye and said, “Let’s make this one-and-done.”

A Very Long Health Journey

An MRI veteran before kindergarten, Molly learned to bring from home her own music to drown out the jackhammer-like noise inside the tube. In the early days, her go-to was the The Little Mermaid soundtrack.

As Molly’s brain tumors were benign (gangliogliomas), surgery was her cure. No chemo. No radiation.

The only outward mark of what has been a very long health journey is a question mark-shaped scar at her right temple, visible when she pulls her hair into a high ponytail.

Former Sick Kid Becoming an RN

Molly, above, at age 7, and today at 21. Now a nursing student, she shows her “Little Mermaid” soundtrack and a doll given to her by an MRI nurse.

Fifteen years since her second surgery, Molly continues to be monitored for tumor recurrence. She remains enrolled in the landmark Long-Term Follow-Up (LTFU) study, measuring the long-term effects on children of treatment for serious illness.

Now 21, in excellent health, and studying to become an RN, this former sick kid shares tips from her personal perspective on how grownups can best communicate with pint-size patients:

Tip 1: Hello … I Can Hear You.

“So many times, I remember conversations going on actually above my head. I was young, but I knew they were talking about me. I wasn’t yet able to put my feelings into words, but I definitely didn’t like it. One thing that registered with me, all those years ago, was when my favorite doctor, neurosurgeon Walter Hall, would sit on a low stool in the exam room so he could ask me questions directly. It put us on the same eye level.”

Tip 2. Let’s Talk About Cinderella.

“I was a patient at a teaching hospital, and the same Dr. Hall—quite tall in my mind’s eye, but as I was just a peanut he could have been any height—traveled with an “entourage.” The people in white coats, now I know them as residents and med students, asked about my bowel movements (gross) and how I would describe my level of post-procedure pain (what?). But Dr. Hall always inquired about Cinderella, Little Mermaid and Pocahontas. My idols! I’m sure he asked medical questions, too, but because he hit on my ‘area of interest,’ I was Miss Cooperative.”

Tip 3. Just the Facts, Ma’am.

“As sick kids should do, I left management and discussion of scary health details to my parents. It was only important to me that Kit-Kat bars were available in the hospital gift shop, that my partially shaved head could still hold a braid and that I could wear my Scooby-Doo dress home. When I got older, my parents would say things like, ‘If there are things you want to know, let’s talk.’ It was years before I took them up on the offers, but looking back, I liked knowing answers were out there, whenever I was ready to ask the questions.”

Care to Share Your Own Tips?

If you have tips on how to talk with kids who are in the midst of a health crisis, please add to the list in the “Comment” section directly below.

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  • Patty Kalgren

    Wonderful info! Great insight into the way a child thinks and feels. I volunteer in a Short Stay Unit (SSPU) and often see young children. This piece gives me valuable information that makes me think about better ways to deliver simple items like popsicles, juice, warm blankets, crayons, coloring books, etc. to little ones. The biggy is getting right down to their eye level! THANK YOU.

  • louise hasenwinkel

    thank you for sharing your experiences, Lou

  • David Williams

    any deaf patients need to support and communicate sign language as ASL (American Sign Language). I would support them

  • Sandra J White

    What a great story of sharing and message to all.

  • Mary E Harrison M.D.

    I was a sick kid too who had many surgeries over the years. I went on to become a nurse and then a doctor specializing in Pediatrics. I would add always tell the truth. Tell them what you are going to do before you do it, especially if it will hurt. Never tell them it won’t hurt if it will. Be honest.

  • Annette Flores

    Thank you for sharing this helpful information!

  • Rowena Daly

    Great advice. Thank you!

  • Terry Jones

    Thank you Molly. Great information. And as many have said it go to adults too. Especially the Elderly. I have a neighbor that is now 51 years old. He was born with MS. He has little usage of his hands, and nousage of his legs. So he lives in an electric wheel chair. His hands and arms move around a lot. He was in line to pay a utility bill and someone behind him said. “They shouldn’t let people like that out in public.” How Hurtful. This man lives alone and has a care giver come in night and morning, to feed him. He is a joy to be around. So kind. He comes by my house almost every day to ask if I need anything from the store. It is hard to understand him when he speaks. He will spell the word I don’t understand, after saying it 2 or 3 times. But still He is very uplifting, If I say “I’m sorry I can’t under-stand.” He will say ‘Why are you sorry, I’m the one that is sorry” Than He laughs, He is scared tp death to be in a hospital alone. So Everyone when you see a sick child or a disabled person or anyone anyone. BE KIND, BE HELPFUL IF POSSIBLE. HOLD A DOOR FOR SOMEONE. JUST THANK GOD YOUR NOT HAVING TO LIVE THROUGH WHATEVER THEY ARE GOING THROUGH.Molly I know I got off track, but you sound like a very compassionate person. You will make a Great Nurse. And thank you for wanting to be that. When little ones or order people find out you went through this they will have more faith and hope. GOD BLESS.

  • Vicky McDaniel

    I’m 64 now, but I still have vivid memories from my tonsillectomy at age 5. They had me naked in a gown that opened up at the back, and a nurse picked me up to carry me somewhere. I was intensely embarrassed that my little hind end was flashing everyone, and as I reached behind me to try to cover it up, all the grownups laughed. They thought it was cute, but now I recognize that at that tender age what I was experiencing was the feeling of being somehow “violated” and not respected, that I was silly to try to cover myself.

  • Jenny Whitman

    Be kind. Be gentle. If the child regresses over bed wetting and/or bowel movements, take it in stride. It’s common in the trauma of a hospitalization. Don’t criticize or complain, she’s already upset over it. Just change the bedding and tell the child you love her. Bring wooden jig saw puzzles in a tray that she can do in bed. Give ice cream if she can take it. Lessons from my own time in hospital at age 5. I’m now 71.

  • Lynne Stanleigh

    Thank you for sharing your experience and good advice to us big people. Congratulations in achieving your goal. Sending light & peace to you always…Lynne StanleigbToronto, Ontario Canada

  • Susan Santangelo

    Thank you for this wonderful, heartfelt post. I certainly learned a lot. God bless you and wishing you continuing good health!

  • Janet robert

    Just want to say good luck to Molly in whatever you do – you will be a good nurse

  • Sylvia McNeil

    Excellent As a retired RN…talk to all patients at eye level and call them by their given name it what name they prefer to be called Thank you

  • Cyndi Andrews

    I have been a nurse for 45 years and I can vouch that talking to kiddo’s on their level makes all the difference in the world for gaining their cooperation, confidence, and Oh so much joy for me!!!

  • Ruth Jane LeBlanc RN, MSA

    As a RN who took care of kids, I found that being honest about what will hurt and what level of “hurt” it will be. I always told them I will try to be quick and we would count together.

  • Amy

    Thank you for sharing your story and the important things you learned of which we need to be aware. Not all young people make it and cannot share, which makes your doing so all the more valuable.

  • Mary

    Great article-thanks so much! It gave me information that hopefully I’ll never need but gratefully I now possess.

  • Helen Bunton

    Very informative, from a retired nurse. Thank you, Caring Bridge.

  • Wanda Walters

    My son’s pediatricians used the “running rabbit in the ears” to get the smaller ones to sit still during the ear exam procedure. When my son saw the pediatric developmental specialist at the teaching hospital following a head injury, my son asked the doctor if he saw the rabbit. The doctor informed my son that there was no rabbit in his ears. My son, four years old, told him very matter of factly that he must not be a very good doctor since he didn’t see the rabbit and his doctors saw the rabbit all the time. Three years later, I am working in the health department, walking through the pediatric section and what do I hear but “ok, lets sit still and I will see if I can see the rabbit running to your other ear”… from the mouths of children.

  • Elizabeth Inglis

    Great information Molly! You are on the way to being a great RN. In my early 20’s, I met a young man who at 16 just found out that his brother (who was 10 years older than him) was never coming back. He became angry and resentful of his parents who did not tell him the truth at the time his brother took his own life at 18, saying instead that he had left home for a while and he was always asking why he didn’t visit. My family helped him understand and forgive. Although this story is in contrast to a survivor of illness, it taught me to be ‘honest’ with children, although it may be hard, they are very resilient and they respect adults who talk to them truthfully, when the child has questions, and taught me how important it is to listen, understand and talk to all levels and ages.

  • Carolyn Boyer

    I’ll never forget my time in hospital in the 40’s when I was 6. I was so scared and lonely. (either appendix or broken arm). I can still visualize a doctor sitting next to my bed drawing a moon face on top of a fence on his notepad. He smiled and talked gently. What a gift.

  • Barbara Millikan

    I was hospitalized for 2 months when I was 2 years old. I don’t have a lot of memories, but I do remember lots of hands and stethoscopes reaching over me. I also remember being wheeled into a room that looked very long and scary. My mom was with me in that room, but she was crying and looked very worried. That worried look haunted me for a long time. The one person who brought me comfort was the woman who raised me. She was smiling and happy to see me, and she brought me a toy, Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer, and the sleigh was full of candies. I worked with children for 40 years. Children need adults to comfort them, show them love, and be strong, even when you’re not feeling strong as an adult.

  • Betty Fiori

    Listening with understanding is important for any age.

  • Anne Selbitschka

    I learned from Mr. Rogers, if you wish to converse with a child, smile and LET THEM start a conversation.

  • M. Moran

    Thank you; this information is very helpful. I am blessed that no children in my family are seriously ill. However, if the situation presents itself, or the topic comes up with friends, I want to share this advice. Being seriously ill is frightening, let alone being a child and not understanding the medical vocabulary and discussions around you.

  • Barbara Parnow

    You also look very kind and caring. I like looking at you!!

  • Barbara Parnow

    Molly, you look so happy!!!

  • Rhonda Dumont

    Molly this is awesome information to be shared, for children by former child patient! I commend you for your persistence, desire to help others and for sharing. I wish for you continued good health and happy life!
    P.S. The tips are actually good for adults:
    1.. Adults don’t like to be ‘talked about’ either
    2.. Finding areas of interest to talk about help to connect patient/doctor and all the other ‘stuff’ discussed might seem less intrusive
    3. Eye level discussions/chats are always best….regardless of age
    4. Just the facts is exactly on target….when will I recover, what can I eat? and most importantly when can I go home

    As a teacher and now brain trauma care giver to my hubby, all of this is hits home .
    God’s speed to you and all those suffering poor health!
    Rhonda D. Virginia

  • Sharon

    Fantastic suggestions… from the kid who lived this…to the adults who need to know. Thanks!

  • joann jardegger

    molly this is an awesome story. thanks pat for sharing. welcome to wonderful world of healthcare from the other side. i wish u the very best as you start your career at united!

  • terry lee poulson

    What a wonderful story!. Thank you.

  • Gibson Janet W.

    Thx Molly – great and helpful information ! Bless you.

  • Brad Leslie

    Pray for the best

  • Brad Leslie

    Take it one day at a time

  • Dianne Davis

    I like the idea of sitting and getting on the child’s level.
    It’s also important to LISTEN to the child and ask if he/she has any questions.

  • Brad Leslie

    Remember your parents are looking out for your best interests

  • Brad Leslie

    Stay positive

  • Brad Leslie

    Praying someone loves you

  • Brad Leslie

    Thanks for all who help

  • Mary Lou Block

    When I was a registered nurse student working in pediatrics, I found it helpful to quickly learn the name of my patients’ stuffed animals or dolls, whatever they had in bed with them. We could easily talk about them and use them as connecting points for building caring relationships. And when performing procedures, it was very important to address even the youngest patients respectfully by their name (or nickname, if appropriate) and to inform them briefly, clearly and soothingly as to what was going to happen next (such as, “I’m going to wipe your arm with this soft, wet cotton ball; it will feel cold for a little bit) and to let them know they were OK and “being good”.

  • Ruthie

    I love this! As a childhood cancer survivor myself I relate to these on all the levels. 🙂 It was beautifully put- esp the last one. Just give them the answers in terms they understand – they know when they aren’t hearing the full truth!

  • Joelle Atkinson

    I never comment on articles like this, but this is SO true! I was transplanted at 18 months old and then again at 9 years old. For the first 10 years of my life, I was hospitalized, poked for blood draws, had procedures and was exposed to doctors galore. The doctors that talked to me, the nurses that were understanding and the phlebotomists that did the best with my shallow veins are the ones that made an incredible impact in my life. Now, at 28, I’m an occupational therapist and treat every patient I meet, no matter old or young, with the utmost respect and dignity. It really goes a very very long way!

  • Sue Harrington

    Great article ! I think it’s so important to know how to make children feel safe and to give them permission to ask questions. And I’d add, wonderful insights into what’s important anyone who’s sick – routines and familiar favorites always make anyone, any age, feel better 🙂

  • Kristin McCurry

    Talk about what makes them happy smile laugh love fill the room with Joy. Put up all their favorite posters and pictures. Sing their favorite songs with them.
    My daughter ELIZABETH is 28 years old now and she has lived through so much heart surgerys leukemia in the other surgeries. She’s always bringing joy of movies music to everyone and letting others know how special they are. Every day can be magical if you make it that way. I feel that no matter who is sick if you work at making their life magical each day it will always be remembered. This is a gift of love.

  • Karen Bartholomew

    My grandson will soon undergo surgery for brain cancer, for the second time. Medulloblastoma. The doctors realized at one point that he was paying attention. “He understands, doesn’t he?” At 2 1/2 he understood a lot, and he chose what to pay attention to and what not to. Fantasy play was his escape. He’s been every superhero in the books, and I have no doubt this same ability to escape into his imagination will see him through this next battle.
    Thank you for the insights about what to share, how open to be, and what to let slide. It would be wonderful if my grandson grew up to be a health care practitioner of some sort. You are a wonderful model!

  • Larry Hellman

    Children listen to stories in cartoon figures in their heads. A child will listen to a story and then stare at the picture, embracing details that adults often over look. I have found that talking to hurting children works best in picture words and seeing colorful pictures. Usually they are scared, so be patient.

  • Karen Carty

    These are such good guidelines for talking to children in any stressful environment. As Victim’s Advocate in a Prosecutor’s Office for more than a decade, I learned the value of sitting in little chairs at little tables or cross-legged on the floor with frightened, abnormally quiet children. Doctor’s have so little time (or take so little time) to relate to these patients, and mom and dad are often so upset they aren’t themselves. Usually I could get them to talk about their pets, their siblings (especially if there was a baby in the house), their favorite toy or game, their favorite/least favorite food. Sometimes we would color together. Whatever the event, kids need reassurances that they are safe, they are understood, and they are not alone.

  • Sherry Rayner

    Loved the tips from Molly, she knows how we can help. As a volunteer for Pathways Home Health and Hospice, for 22 years and am on the Kid’s Team we are always looking for ways to connect! Thanks, Molly. Around holiday time, any holiday I would always bring things to decorate with in their rooms. Decorating a mini pumpkin or decorating a tiny tree can be an uplift as well as an activity. Tying ribbons around stuffed animals as holiday scarves or making earmuffs out of cotton balls and qui tips is fun too. Painting toenails or fingernails in fun colors and me joining in is fun too. Anxious to hear more from others.

  • Christian D. Orr

    God bless and kudos to you for making it this far on your life’s journey, Molly!

  • Tracy

    Remembering children are smarter and more aware than we think is a very helpful tool for all. Thank you for sharing your story. I am amazed to see how many awesome brave children of ailments/disease/surgeries go into the medical field to help find cures and help others. Sometimes I believe that might be one of the purposes for having gone through so much – you guys make THE BEST medical “employees” because you know so much more than books can teach. Thank you !!!

  • Pamela Roebuck

    I love this story! Compassionate communication and the ability to truly listen with our hearts is essential in healing. The doctor who met this child at her own level by sitting on a low stool was brilliant. He understood that to be a good listener one must be at the patient’s level. Not just physically but emotionally as well. Compassionate listening….Being there

  • Barbara Tkach

    Thank you for sharing this about Molly so we can transfer whose thoughts and success stories with our loved ones. We should be more aware of the miracles working around and in us.

  • Pamela Roebuck

    Loved the straight and honest discussion. It is always paramount to meet anyone who is sick at their own level. The doctor who sat on the low stool and had eye to eye contact is brilliant. An elder once gave me the advise that if you were to heal a truck driver then you must be more like the truck driver. We do not heal by looking above or below another person…only at their level can compassionate communication take place. It goes beyond the physical. It includes all levels of ‘being there.’ Listen with your heart.

  • Susan Harrison

    I am an adult and recently had shoulder surgery, but I can vouch for what Molly says. I may be 70 but please, Docs, talk TO me. I felt enormously stressed when some person came in to talk to me about IV infusion for an infection. I was still in post surgery anesthesia cloud and he rattled off words after words none of which meant anything. And to the docs I had to visit after surgery (and pre), please look me in the eyes, please speak English, not medicates. And please remember: I am not my shoulder; I am a PERSON with a bad shoulder. Treat all of me!

  • Dianne Cohn

    Nice article. I talked to my 16 year old niece with Leukemia for years, everyday while she went through chemotherapy. We discussed puppies and flowers and school, things that were dear to her. Giving her encouragement all the way, you can do this, hang in there, send little gift packages. She had enough about the ailment, she wanted some normal life injected into her painful day.

  • Lynell Pool

    I am most grateful to have read your story. I just heard about a brave child in my community going through a similar battle. The family is in need of financial help, & started a can drive. I reached out to her mom to see if I could do more..& am meeting them this Thursday. Your tips will help me in talking to her for the first time. Thank you for sharing…& now caring for others!

  • Elizabeth

    Wonderful article about talking with kids…. not at them, and truly caring about their thoughts and feelings.
    Thank you!

  • Larry Brixius

    Beautiful! Insightful! And it works beyond medical situations.

  • Susan

    Thank you, Molly and Caring Bridge!!! I am a Child Development Specialist who works with babies with all sorts of medical conditions. I notice different children process things in all sorts of ways, and it is important to remember that they might not be able to understand things in words. It often comes out in their play – in their clinginess, tiredness, aggression, seeming like they are older than they are (but they are still kids). I loved the description of your perceptions of the doctors and medical staff. GOD bless you as you become a nurse and provide the gift of understanding to your patients!

  • Ginger Hunt

    Thank you. Can you write a bit about long term sinckness? My friends son has cancer. He’s 21 and he’s been sick, or in remission, for about 7 years. I never know if he’s sick or doing well at any given time. Is there something I should ask, or just talk about his car he’s fixing , and how his girlfriend is doing?

  • Carolena Larsen

    Really good points! Excellent review for parents on how to talk to their kids when they become ill.

  • Carolena Larsen

    Really good points! Excellent review for parents on how to talk to their kids when they’re ill.

  • Penny Scott, RN

    Such good reflection from someone who has actually been down the road of health problems at a tender age. Thanks for sharing this! I am currently working as an elementary school nurse and I think with what you have been through you will be able to relate to your patients on a personal level and have good bedside manor. Thanks Molly!

  • Becky Oldenburg

    When working as a EMT-I, when at all possible, I would hold their hands & talk to them at their level not mine. Holding their hands seemed to make them feel like I really wanted to help them. I also had a an incident where we had to transfer a infant to a hospital out of town & the child had a highly contagious condition. They put the baby on the stretcher but when I got in the back with her, I picked her up & held her the whole way to the other hospital & just walked her in. Why? She was only a couple of days old & was so sick. I wanted her to know that she was loved & comforted. That someone really cared since none of the family came with us to drop her off. No one could take my kids anywhere without me going with them. She knew I cared for her.

  • Eugene Pennington

    They are people too,just young people who are afraid and hurting and need compassion,understanding and love!

  • Gene

    So beautiful!

  • Diana Rizzolo

    Just a wonderful article about what is
    Important to children.

  • Marietta Stone

    Yes. We need to slow down and let the children express themselves however they can and then listen to them and not talk so much ourselves. Observing that in our granddaughter’s first days of testing and treatment.

  • james hribernick

    I love it ! My 16 year old daughter is intubated and can’t communicate very well . Nods yes or no , so when she looks uncomfortable and we start rapid firing questions , she gets really upset and oxygen level drop , heart rate goes up and blood pressure goes up . We need to slow down . I know we want to comfort her but we end up excrabatin the situation .