No matter how old your children get, it’s never easy seeing them ill or injured – whether it’s a broken leg, bout of depression, or life-threatening disease. All most of us want to do is make our kids better but this is nearly always out of our control.

It can also be difficult to know how best to approach illness when your child is an adult. For example, do you wait for them to ask for help to avoid overstepping – or jump in at the first sign that something’s wrong? And how will you feel if they don’t want your help or to talk to you about it all?

Parent-child relationships can be complicated at the best of times, let alone when someone is ill. And, as our children grow up, we also have to make a more concerted effort to respect their space, independence, and autonomy.

With this in mind, we’ve pulled together five tips on how best to help adult children through illness – from effective communication and boundary-setting to knowing when to give your adult child space. We’ve included steps on how to look after yourself during those trying times too.

1. Take time to learn about your child’s illness

Take time to learn about your child’s illness

As the saying goes, knowledge is power – so one of the best things you can do to support any unwell family member is to equip yourself with as much knowledge as possible about their illness or injury. This can not only help you understand what they might be going through physically and emotionally but to know what help you might be able to offer.

While general reading can be helpful, you might find it more effective to speak to a health professional or join a support group. Maybe organisations that focus on specific health concerns – such as Macmillan – have support available for friends and family too.

2. Ask your child what they need

It may sound obvious, but asking your adult child what they need – and really listening to the answer – is likely to be the most effective thing you can do to help them. What we think someone needs might be different to what they actually need, which is why communication is so important.

There’s also a chance that your child might just need space to vent their sadness or frustration about their illness and offload. In many cases, they may not expect you to do anything other than listen, hug them, or sit by their side at a doctor’s appointment. Sometimes, your presence is simply all they’ll want or need.

3. Practise helping your child in a way that supports their independence

If your adult child is hurt or unwell, it can be tempting to want to do everything for them – but this can sometimes hinder more than help. They might quickly grow tired of you fussing over them, miss their independence, or become so reliant on you that it affects their recovery.

Every situation will be different, but, if possible, try to take a step back and allow your adult child to have some control over their care. Even if you don’t agree with all their decisions, respecting and accepting their choices can lead to a more balanced relationship and release tension between you.

Allowing someone to have a say in how they’re cared for is often better for their confidence and self-esteem too; and can empower them to become more attuned to their own needs.

4. Set boundaries

Set boundaries

Supporting your adult child to be as independent as possible while they’re unwell can help to set boundaries that protect you too. While some adult children may fight to remain independent, others may expect a lot more from loved ones – even in cases where they can do things for themselves.

At times, you might need to get comfortable saying no while reminding them of the importance of self-care. You may also find yourself wanting to help, even if you know they can manage – and while, sometimes this is okay, it’s important to strike a healthy balance.

5. Find positives in your relationship

If you find yourself caring for your adult child long-term, your relationship with them may change.

Sometimes, you might feel close to them; while other times you may feel frustrated by the situation or get on each other’s nerves. In the latter case, it can be useful to take a step back and reaffirm the positives in your relationship.

Perhaps there’s something – even if small – that you can find to bond over, like a TV show, hobby, or cause. Having something like this to fall back on can help bring you back onto positive ground when things get rocky. It can also give you something else to talk about if things are feeling perpetually gloomy.

You may even discover that you have more in common than you think!

6. Understand the finances and legalities of caring for your adult child through a long-term illness

If caring for an adult child long-term affects your ability to work, then it’s important to make sure you have the right financial support in place for both of you. Our articles, Carer’s assessment: What support can carers get? and What is Carer’s Allowance and who gets it?, have more information on the support available.

Depending on your child’s circumstances and whether or not they’re well enough to make their own decisions, you may have to make some for them. In this case, it’s worth contacting Citizens Advice who can guide you on how best to manage things.

7. Know when it’s appropriate to intervene

Know when it’s appropriate to intervene

Sometimes people can find it difficult to ask for help and support when they need it – for example, if they’re struggling with addiction. In this case, it may be appropriate to stage an intervention. However, these can be delicate situations and should be approached carefully, to avoid as much conflict and upset as possible.

An intervention is a meeting between the person with addiction and a group of family members, friends or a mixture of both, who all want to help the person face the truth that they have a problem and persuade them to get treatment. Sometimes friends and family may also work with counsellors from rehabilitation clinics during this process.

The UK Addiction Treatment Centres website has information on increasing your chances of a successful intervention.

In cases where someone is refusing help, even though they appear to be in great danger – perhaps due to suicidal thoughts, signs of a heart attack, or sudden confusion – you should call 999. The NHS has more advice about when to call 999 on their website.

8. Monitor and celebrate progress

It can be easy to focus on the negatives while your child is unwell, but it’s important to celebrate any progress too – whether your child completes a course of treatment, can do something on their own again, or is simply smiling more.

Acknowledging these small victories can help to keep you both sane. It can also remind you to stay flexible and adaptive in your approach to looking after your adult child – as they may need different levels of care and support at different times.

Remember…your children are important, but so are you!

Remember…your children are important, but so are you

Loving our children is the best thing that many of us will ever do. But it can also be difficult and worrying – especially when we aren’t sure how to help or we need to care for them like we did when they were younger.

Therefore, it’s important to look after yourself during these stressful periods too – remembering that, doing so will place you in the best possible position to support your child. This is especially true if you’re not only caring for a child but a parent too – something which is becoming more common. For more on this, check out our article; How to cope with sandwich generation stress.

It’s also important to…

Talk about how you feel

Talking about how you feel when a loved one is ill can provide you with an emotional outlet. This can prevent you from taking out any frustrations on them and help you gain perspective on the situation.

However, it’s best not to spend too much time venting to your adult child about your fears and concerns, as they may be struggling with their own feelings about their illness. Instead, try to find someone else to share these thoughts with, while keeping things as positive as you can around your poorly loved one.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to other family members or friends, you might want to look for a local support group – especially if you’re caring for them long-term. Carer’s UK has an online forum for carers.

Be realistic and seek help when needed

Try to be realistic about what you can and can’t do to help your adult child – and remember that you can’t solve all of their problems or carry the entire burden for them.

In some cases, you may be unable to carry out part of your child’s care without support. For example, can they be left on their own if you go out to get their prescription or visit the doctor for your own health? Or, if they need long-term treatment, can you realistically commit to taking them to every medical appointment?

If not, you may need to ask friends, family, or even neighbours (where appropriate) for help. However, it’s generally a good idea to check with your adult child first to make sure they feel comfortable involving others in their care.

Even if your child isn’t seriously ill, you may still need help with things like getting them in and out of the car, for example. While you may want to do everything yourself, it’s important to recognise when this isn’t a good idea. After all, it won’t be helpful for either of you if you hurt yourself. Carers UK has a tool for searching for help in your area if you find you’re unable to ask a family member or a friend to help you.

Even if all you’re doing is providing moral support for your adult child and you come to a point where you don’t know what to say or do anymore, you might still need to lean on friends, family members, or health professionals. So, try to build and maintain a support network and encourage your adult child to do the same.

Create a routine

Having a routine and staying organised can help you feel more in control when things around you seem to be spiralling out of control. If your adult child is in hospital or their own home, you might want to establish routine visits. This can offer you both some peace of mind, as you’ll know that, whatever else happens that day or week, you’ve got time set aside to spend together.

If you’re caring for your child long-term, it might be helpful to let someone else know where your schedule is, incase you become unwell yourself. This is particularly important if your child needs to take medication at certain times, or if a prescription needs to be renewed.

Find ways to recharge

Whether you’re working and helping your adult child cope with illness or caring for them full-time, it’s important to find time for you.

Even doing things like going for a short walk, doing some gentle yoga, or practising mindfulness can do wonders for helping you recharge.

Final thoughts...

Supporting your child through illness at any age is rarely easy, and can be a time of great worry – especially if you don’t always know what to do or say. However, sometimes all that’s needed is to tell them that you’ll always be there for them, even if they initially push you away.

There may also be times, particularly if you’re caring for your adult child full-time when you need a break, and it’s okay to admit that – you’re only human. After all, as a parent you never want to see your child sick and, as an adult child, it can be difficult to forgo your independence and rely on your parent once again.

However, the positive news is that, with tolerance, patience, and boundary-setting, it’s possible to make it through these challenging times while keeping your relationship intact – and maybe even coming out the other side stronger.

For further reading, head over to the health and the money sections of our website. Here, you’ll find information on everything from general health and exercise to caring and everyday finances.

Have you had any experience of caring/supporting your adult child through illness? Do you have any additional advice that you feel comfortable sharing? If so, we’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.