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Explaining Dementia To Your Children

Presented by BetterHelp.


Dementia is becoming an all too common condition in older adults. It affects every aspect of cognitive functioning, from memory and communication to moods and behavior. The affected person will depend on family for help and may experience significant personality changes. This can all be very confusing to a child who doesn’t understand this condition. 


Therefore, it is essential to discuss the situation with your child with empathy, openness, and honesty. They will depend on you for information and emotional support during this time. However, that doesn’t mean that this is an easy conversation to have. Below are some tips to consider when explaining dementia to your children


When To Have The Talk

Ideally, you should discuss your family member’s diagnosis as soon as possible, preferably right after the diagnosis or once your child starts noticing the symptoms. If you wait too long, the situation may become severe, leaving your child very confused. 


Timing is even more essential if the family member is going to be living with your family. Your children need to understand why the family member is moving in and how it will change their day-to-day life. Though the conversation may be uncomfortable, it needs to happen sooner rather than later. 

How To Explain Dementia To Your Children

Explaining dementia is never an easy discussion. It is a heartbreaking condition that will affect the family member for the rest of their lives. Your child may be perplexed and may not understand the gravity of the situation. Therefore, the condition needs to be discussed so your child can better understand what’s happening. Here are a few tips on how to have that discussion

Allow Open Communication

Explaining dementia is not going to be a one-off conversation. Dementia causes frequent changes as it is a progressive condition that will eventually affect much of the brain. Therefore, the symptoms they are exhibiting now may be different from those they show in a few months or a year. Therefore, ensure your child knows that you are always open to discussing the situation and can answer any questions they have. 

Answer All Questions Honestly

The truth is that your children will probably have many questions. Chances are, that they have never witnessed someone live with dementia before, so they may not thoroughly understand what is happening. It’s essential to answer all their questions honestly so they have as much information as possible to navigate the situation. Don’t hide information from them or lie about your family member’s condition to protect them or their feelings. Children need to understand how serious the situation is and won’t understand the gravity of the condition if you don’t make that clear. 

Explain The Changes They Can Expect

It’s important to educate your child about what comes with dementia. They should know the basics of what the condition is as well as some of the most common symptoms they will witness in their loved ones. Unfortunately, dementia will probably affect all their interactions with the family member, so they should be prepared for what’s coming. Some common symptoms you should prepare them for are:


  • Forgetting names, people, and dates
  • Wandering off
  • Repeating questions or comments
  • Struggling to finish sentences or follow conversations
  • Increased irritation or aggression
  • Stubbornness
  • Apathy
  • Depression


Furthermore, you should also point them to age-appropriate resources so they can learn more on their own. For some basic information about dementia, you can head to the link below:

Remind Them That Their Family Members Still Love Them

The most heartbreaking aspects of dementia are that the person slowly loses their memory of their loved ones and begins to behave in a manner that is unlike them. These changes can make it seem like the family member no longer loves their loved ones or is an entirely different person altogether. This can make for some difficult interactions that your child may take personally. 


Make sure your child understands that although their family members are going through these heartbreaking changes, deep down, they still love them. Furthermore, any frustrating or confusing interactions should not be taken personally. The person with dementia slowly loses control of their memory or actions, so nothing they do is personal or meant to hurt anyone, including your child. Make this clear to your child so they know that they aren’t always necessarily to blame for their family member’s reactions or moods.  

Common Reactions From Children

Children may have mixed reactions to the news that their loved one has dementia. On the one hand, they may be sad that their loved one is changing, but they may also feel frustrated or resentful that the family member needs so much help. Assure them that their emotions are valid, but make sure they don’t act out or behave inappropriately. 


You should also be prepared for their emotions to change frequently. Some days they may be more understanding and helpful, while other days, they may be more resistant and act out. Be as patient as you can, as children often struggle to communicate their emotions calmly or appropriately. 


Some common reactions that children have to this news include: 

  • Sad that their family member is struggling 
  • Curious about dementia and accompanying diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s
  • Confused about the person’s change of behavior
  • Frustrated or resentful that the person takes up so much time or resources to help
  • Embarrassment of their behavior, especially if their friends or visitors witness the behavior


No matter how they react, it is important to honor their emotions. You probably have conflicting emotions yourself, so you need to understand how confusing this situation is to a child. Though you should encourage the healthy expression of all their emotions, do not punish them for feeling a certain way. 

Final Thoughts

A dementia diagnosis affects everyone in the family, not just the diagnosed individual. The changes in the person’s behavior will leave children confused. Explaining dementia to them early on can help them prepare for their family member’s changes and help them navigate the situation better. Remember to be empathetic, open, and honest with each other as the two of you navigate this diagnosis together. 


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