It can be incredibly hard talking to family about anything—let alone your health. Whether it’s your parents, siblings, children, or even second cousin, your loved ones have an emotional involvement in your life, which can make the topic of health complications difficult to tackle.
What you say (or even what you don’t say!) and how you say it is incredibly important if you hope to keep the relationships in your life as functional as possible. Here are 20 things you should never say to your family about your health, an essential read for anyone with an illness, or for their loved ones.
If that is the truth, then go ahead and say it. Heck, sing it while dancing a jig. However, don’t lie to your family about your health just to make them feel better. You need to be honest so that they can be there to support you. ”Why would you keep anything as important as the details of your physical or emotional health a secret from the people who love you and are part of your world?” points out family therapist Dana McNeil, LMFT, Founder of The Relationship Place. “Your health issues are not a burden and you are not protecting your family by not sharing with them.” Furthermore, by not telling them the truth you are only creating distance and isolation by avoiding being vulnerable or asking for support and help.
Having to discuss your health with family can be overwhelming—especially since they are probably asking a lot of questions. You may not want to look weak, or, conversely, might equate stoicism with courage. However, it is very important not to shut your family out. They are concerned and want to be part of the conversation. Try and think about the situation from their perspective and how helpless they must feel. If you need to take a break from the conversation, gently and thoughtfully express it to them.
Try and refrain from using your health condition as a method of controlling other people. Not only will it not work, but it could backfire on you. “Manipulation through guilt is surefire way to destroy relationships,” explains renowned clinical and consulting psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough. “Don’t do it.”
Genetics are something completely out of our control. Blaming your family for your health isn’t going to get you anywhere relationship-wise or improve your health—and some experts believe that the negative and ill-fated thinking can worsen some conditions. “While science tells us that we can inherit genetic predispositions for certain health challenges, most chronic diseases are due to what we eat, drink, breathe, do, and possibly think—and thinking includes believing. What we believe about ourselves and our prognosis is huge,” explains Cynthia Li, MD, a board certified internist and author of Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness.
She points out that if you can stop believing you are fated for chronic illness, you might be able to visualize complete health. “This enlists our right brain to begin changing how our genes fold and unfold, thereby changing their expression from inflammation to healing—to say nothing of how this shift might begin to heal our relationships.”
With family, your problems are theirs too. “Family members can often feel as powerless as the person who is sick, and withdrawing or diminishing the challenges risks aggravating the situation,” Dr. Li maintains. “Sometimes the most healing act is simply to give each other out attention. Healing doesn’t happen in isolation.”
When you are you sick, and make a statement like this to your family, you are basically encouraging them to worry. “You have just put two things together that sends off smoke signals in the people that know you well. First, you have admitted to being in pain and then you used that phrase ‘it’s not so bad’ which roughly translated means, ‘It hurts a lot’” explains Eudene Harry, MD, Medical Director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center. “Whatever you are referring to will now become the sole focus of their attention.”
You may think you are making things easier for the rest of your family by brushing off the seriousness of your situation, but it is truly not fair to them. “When you downplay the seriousness of your symptoms or condition, you miss the opportunity for somebody in your family to help you, and it doesn’t give your family room to be empathetic and compassionate, both of which are actually very helpful for healing,” Adrienne Nolan-Smith, Board Certified Patient Advocate and founder of WellBe explains.
About 99 percent of the time we tell our loved ones we will “take care of it later,” they immediately know we aren’t going to get around to it anytime soon. “These are the people who know your every expression, what gives you energy and more importantly when you are not yourself,” Dr. Harry points out. “If they are concerned about your health, take care of it.”
You shared your symptoms with your family, and now they are making suggestions about what it could be. “‘It’s probably nothing’ is something I hear frequently from my family and my patients,” Dr. Harry reveals. “I have come to understand that this one often times means they are concerned about the symptom but are more concerned that it could be something they are not ready to hear or accept right now.” Unfortunately, what you don’t know can hurt you, and brushing it off as nothing could be seriously detrimental to your health. “Remember, whatever it is, small or not so small, your family is there to support you.”
When playing the blame game, family is always first on the list—especially when it comes to mental health conditions. However, nothing is going to get solved by pointing the finger at your loved ones. “No matter how difficult your children or parents are, blaming them for your depression, anxiety, high blood pressure or other illness is never a good idea,” explains Hokemeyer. Instead, try and focus on recovery, perhaps including them in the healing process.
Your family is probably going to want updates on your health condition, so expect lots of phone calls and texts. It might be annoying but just try and keep in mind that they are on your team and just want to be there for you. Consider sending a weekly email update to those who are concerned, so they know what’s up without having to bug you.
When it comes to your health, it takes a village. So many people have trouble asking for or accepting help from others—including their family. We don’t want to put others out or feel like a nuisance. But keep in mind that your loved ones are probably feeling quite helpless because they can’t “fix” you. Allowing them to help you is helping them, because then they get to feel like they are doing their part.
First of all, telling your family that you aren’t their business is just plain wrong. Second, it can come off as rude. If you don’t feel like sharing, say something like “Now’s not a good time” and schedule a better time to talk.
Maybe your family member hasn’t been through exactly what you are going through, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been through (or might not go through) their own health crisis. It’s possible you don’t even know about it. Also remember it can be incredibly and traumatic watching your loved one suffer.
If you are 100 percent sure that you aren’t sick, then go ahead and say it. However, if there is even the slightest chance that you are coming down with something and could potentially infect anyone else, you have to be honest about it. “We are the most contagious to others about a day before our outward symptoms show and have the potential to spread germs that can make others sick up to a week later,” McNeil points out. “Letting our family members know we are starting to feel under the weather gives them a heads up to avoid sharing cups or kisses for a short amount of time while your illness passes.”
It might not seem like a fun conversation to have, but always talk to your family about genetic history and certain dispositions. If you are a parent, talk to your children. And children, ask lots of questions. Also, be sure to open up the conversation with your significant other. “When planning to start a family it is important to be honest with your partner about your family history,” McNeil adds. “Even if there is only a small risk of passing along a specific gene, it still shows your partner that you have given them the option to consider the potential for risk of passing along these issues to your future child.”
The medications you are taking may seem like nobody else’s business, but it’s important to inform your family about any prescriptions, supplements and even vitamins you are currently taking. First of all, McNeil points out that our family members are often the front line in detecting any side effects. “Since they are with us on a day-to-day basis they can notice when cognitive or physical changes are happening that we may not notice because of the effects of medication,” she points out.
For example, some psychiatric medications impact appetite, sleep, libido, and can in some cases increase thoughts of suicide. Having a family member help monitor any unusual changes in mood or behavior helps manage the potential side effects of new medications. Also, in the event we are ever incapacitated they can provide important information about our health history to medical providers.
Keeping your family in the loop of any mental health struggles is absolutely crucial. They, more than anyone else, have the ability to guide you out of a dark place. “Going through rough times and experiencing depression are difficult enough without isolating yourself from your support system,” says McNeil. They can also help steer you in the direction of a mental health specialist. “Sometimes the person experiencing these symptoms of depression is scared or unsure how to reach out for help,” she continues. “Telling a family member you feel safe with can ensure that attention is paid to the issue and steps can be taken to get help.”
Other important symptoms you should be totally upfront with your family about are chest pains. “Most of us are likely to hope these symptoms will pass and tell ourselves to just tough them out,” McNeil states. However, these symptoms could be a sign of a heart attack or stroke and could lead to loss of consciousness. “Loved ones need to know what was happening right before so they are better able to seek medical attention for you.”
There is no possible way your family is going to be able to avoid worrying about you, because they love and care about you. You very well might be fine—especially if you clue them in about what you’re going through first. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 38 Ways to Live Healthy.