It’s the holidays, the time of year when you get together with family, eat a lot of food and have awkward conversations. So why not initiate a conversation about your family health history? Here’s why this is a good idea. For starters, the holiday season is probably the only time of year where you get the chance to talk to your entire family at once. And secondly, and most importantly, knowing your family’s health history is vital for your own health. Knowing your family’s health history gives you insight on the specific health concerns you might be genetically at risk for developing, including everything from high blood pressure to ADHD to sickle cell disease.
“There are many beneficial reasons to talk about family health issues,” Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells SheKnows. “Talking about family health issues for biological families can offer insights into what one’s physical health needs may include and what to monitor. For example, if a parent has problems with their thyroid or mental health, given that there’s a genetic component, these ailments may also affect future generations.”
As an adult you may not think to screen for certain health concerns for yourself or your own children unless you know you’re genetically predisposed for them, which is why it’s crucial to initiate conversations about your family health history. Discussing one’s health can be a delicate topic, so if you’re nervous on how to bring up the topic, below are tips to help you break the ice.
There’s still a stigma around many health topics
Lurie says it’s perfectly normal to feel a little hesitant about broaching the health talk with your family since many topics, including mental health, addiction, and diseases are considered preventable.
“Talking about family health topics can be difficult if one imagines they will be judged or blamed for their health issues,” she says. “Additionally, some families have a culture of privacy and rigid boundaries. Parents may not want to ‘burden’ their children with information about their health challenges, or they may think it’s inappropriate to share this information with their children or extended family.”
A family member might also be reluctant to share if someone is trying to protect a loved one, says Lurie, “but this makes it difficult to access support, and it makes it difficult for the family member to be empowered to take care of their own health.”
Additionally, according to Lurie, many families who struggle with generational chronic health conditions tend to be members of underserved communities and often have limited access to general health education and resources. “Living within these spaces that are effectively designed to be healthcare deserts can make it especially difficult to empower younger generations with the knowledge to look out for their health in the future,” she says.
Explain why you want to know
Before firing away questions about your family’s health history, Lurie says it’s helpful to begin these conversations with some useful context.
“If you’re concerned about your own health or your children’s health, and you’re hoping that having insights into your parents’ or extended family’s health history can help you better care for yourself and those you love, share that before you broach the topic,” she suggests.
She also encourages folks to consider when and how they’re having these conversations.
“A 1:1 conversation over coffee will likely allow for more privacy and, therefore, more comfort than a discussion over the dinner table with the rest of the extended family and family friends,” she explains. “While the shared information may be pertinent for other family members, addressing health and health concerns with one person will likely be more manageable if it has never been discussed with anyone in the past.”
How to respond to a family member who doesn’t want to talk
Keep in mind that a family member might be uncomfortable when asked about a tough health issue. In this instance, Lurie recommends acknowledging the discomfort. “The person asking could name that they imagine it’s hard to talk about these things and validate those feelings,” she says. “Curiosity can also be helpful in these situations. If you ask what makes them uncomfortable, you can address that with them.”
Why talking about your health is empowering
While these discussions can be vulnerable and uncomfortable, Lurie says they can also be empowering because talking about your health allows you to care for your health. “For many, knowledge about our family’s health can offer insights into our health and can help you monitor specific potential concerns and make choices that you might not otherwise make,” she says.
Lurie says she hopes people will enter these conversations with considering the need for compassion for themselves and their family members. “Be clear with yourself and your family about why you’re having the conversation so that you can ideally identify how to best care for yourself and how to support your family.”
Before you go, check out the quotes we love to instill positive attitudes about food and bodies: