Talking to Kids About Family Health History
Genetics is a fascinating subject; think about it – we are born with an array of traits, tendencies, and conditions passed down to us from our ancestors. This collection of characteristics then defines many aspects of our lives in subtle and sometimes more obvious ways. Talking to kids about family health history can seem like a daunting task, but it is important to normalize this conversation and help them feel comfortable with this topic. Discussing genetic conditions that may affect the child’s life in big or small ways helps them be more knowledgeable, prepared, and conscious of their overall wellness.
What to Talk About
So, how do you know where to begin this conversation? It certainly does not have to be as extensive as those lengthy new patient forms at the doctor’s office, but you do want to point out the big ones, if they run in your family:
- Cancer: certain inherited genes can lead to abnormal cell growth and tumors.
- Inherited genetic disorders – examples of these include cystic fibrosis, hemophilia (blood clotting disorder), and muscular dystrophy
- Heart concerns: genes can affect our cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and the way our heart works.
- Diabetes: genes can affect how our body handles sugar and insulin.
- Sickle cell: this is an important one to keep in mind not only for a person’s own health, but also for that of their future offspring because they’ll want to be mindful of their partner’s genetics when family planning.
- Mental health: although mental health issues are usually affected by many different factors, genetics can play a part in many common conditions.
Aside from these, the rule of thumb is to consider any instance of death or severe illness at a young age (under 35) in close relatives. Talk to your own primary care physician if you’re not sure about what is relevant.
How to Talk About It
It’s a good idea to plan and conduct the conversation about family health history with your biological co-parent present, if possible. Use your discretion and choose which topics you want to cover. Do some general research about the basics of the conditions you want to discuss beforehand in case your kids have questions. It’s okay if you can’t answer all of them – this is a great opportunity to learn together!
This topic can initially be unsettling, so be mindful of your child’s developmental level and sensitivity when choosing to have the talk about family health history. I would advise bringing this up with kids age 12 and older, who are likely more developmentally prepared to have such a conversation. When you do discuss it, couch it in the sense of “I’m telling you this so you can be proactive about your overall health.” This should be a positive initiative toward health agency and wellness.
While this might feel like a grim subject, it is actually a great opportunity for open conversation and building stronger connections between generations. Encourage your children to talk to their grandparents and other relatives about family health. Help them initiate these conversations in a polite and gentle manner; roleplaying these difficult talks can help make them more comfortable.
This is also a chance to teach children about advocating for their health and wellness by communicating their questions and concerns with their pediatrician. This gives them agency in their own healthcare journey and may help them to be more confident and comfortable in the healthcare setting. Unfortunately, it is common for kids to be afraid of going to the doctor’s office, so talking through health concerns about their genetics with the pediatrician is a good way to help them feel more comfortable around healthcare providers.
Building Healthy Foundations
Finally, talking about family health history with children is a great way to encourage health-consciousness and promote a wellness-oriented lifestyle. For example, if your family might be genetically prone to high cholesterol levels, your children would benefit from getting excited about healthy nutrition early on. This would build lifelong habits of wellness that will serve them into adulthood. Agency #ftw!