There could be a variety of reasons that you may want to talk with your child about HIV. If someone in your family has HIV, then you may want to be able to discuss that person’s diagnosis with any children in the family. Even if you don’t personally know anyone who has the virus, it’s a good idea for parents to talk about it with their kids, to help them learn how to keep themselves safe.
So how do you talk about HIV with a child?
When it comes to children and AIDS or HIV, they might hear about it in a variety of ways besides from parents. Older children may have had HIV and AIDS explained to them in school, or they might have heard about it from other kids or from the media.
Many parents wait for an opportunity for the topic to come up naturally, so the conversation doesn’t feel forced. It’s a good idea to start by asking if your child has heard of HIV or AIDS, and to ask what they already know. This allows you to start the discussion at an appropriate level.
Next, you can share the basics about the virus. For example, share that HIV is a virus that destroys a person’s immune system. If they don’t get treatment, then they will get AIDS, which means that they get a lot of other infections and can die. But if they take medicines, this keeps the virus under control and they stay healthy. Kids of almost any age can understand this.
It’s important for kids to know how HIV is and isn’t transmitted. Let them know that it can’t be transmitted in public places like in pools or bathrooms, or through hugging or kissing a person who has the virus. This helps them not to be afraid of HIV-positive people, including any HIV-positive family members they may have. Let them know that it’s only transmitted through specific body fluids – blood, sexual fluids, and breast milk. It’s also a very good idea to share that there are ways to protect themselves. You could talk about condoms, being monogamous with a partner, and avoiding sharing blood with anyone. Even if your child is too young to fully understand the information, it’s a good idea to model being open about talking about these topics, so they’ll feel comfortable coming to you later if they have questions.
You might also want to discuss HIV testing. Make sure that your child knows that many people with HIV don’t know they have it, and the only way to find out is to get a test. You might even want to share that there are home tests available, in case they or their friends are worried about having the virus. Young people with HIV are the least likely to know their status, and when they have sex, it’s more likely to be unprotected sex. Let them know that if they ever have any risky behavior like unprotected sex, it never hurts to test to be sure.
If you’re living with HIV, then you might have a lot of emotions around telling your child about your diagnosis. Some people choose not to tell very young children about their HIV, because they might want to keep the information private within the family and they know that young children usually can’t keep secrets. However, at some point, you should talk to your child about your diagnosis. Only you can decide when your child is mature enough to handle this information.
Your child may want to know how you got the virus. You should be as honest with your child as possible. This is an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your child and to model open communication. In addition, telling your child the truth helps them to learn about how to protect themselves against getting HIV. Within their developmental level, you can share the truth about how you got infected.
Be prepared for your child to have a variety of emotions when they learn about your diagnosis. Children may fear losing you, and may worry about what will happen if you get very sick. It may help to talk with them about how effective ART is, and let them know that people with HIV can often live just as long as people without. Depending on the child’s age, they may be angry that you kept this from them for years. There are support groups available if your child wants to talk with others who have gone through the same thing.
HIV. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html. Accessed 1 Apr 2022.
HIV Information and Youth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/youth_hiv/hiv-information-and-youth.htm. Accessed 1 Apr 2022.
Talking to kids about sex. Mayo Clinic (2021). https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/sexual-health/basics/talking-to-kids-about-sex/hlv-20049432. Accessed 1 Apr 2022.