Living with Dying

Talking to children about terminal illness

It can be difficult to decide whether to discuss serious illness with others. Some people said that the worst part about the illness was telling their children, even if they were grown up with their own families.

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Grandparents could often explain to younger children that they were 'poorly' and could not play or look after them as they had. One grandfather talked about the importance of the child's personality as well as age and maturity in deciding what to say.

Deciding what to say and preparing oneself for any questions can be difficult, although friends and health professionals can help. Some parents knew that they could have handled this better. Parents tend to want to protect their children and this can sometimes lead the child to think that the situation is more positive than it is.

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One woman suspected she might have been too willing to allow her children to assume she would get better. However, a man who, one year earlier, had been encouraged to tell his children that he was dying, reflected that had he done so he would have broken the news to his daughter just before her A levels.

People who had tried to keep secrets from children who were still at home often felt this couldn't work - as one mother of teenagers had come to realise 'it doesn't do any favours to hide things'.

A man with testicular cancer described how his child had found out about his cancer in 'the worst possible way', from a teacher at school in front of all the other children. Another parent kept her teenage daughter informed because she feared that she might hear about her condition from someone else.

A woman with breast cancer regretted that she hadn't been more truthful and honest when talking to her grown up daughters. One daughter had been upset because she hadn't fully understood that her mother might die.

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Although most parents say that honesty is important, they take many different approaches and modify them according to their ideas about what the child can take in. Some explain everything, or take their children to hospital appointments while others decide to wait until their children ask questions. A mother realised that she had made a mistake in assuming that her nine year old was too young to be told. One man with two young children, aged 10 and 11, said there was no need to discuss death and dying, and that information should be given “gently”.

School teachers, perhaps using books and videos, may be able to help children to understand the meaning of serious illness. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals can also help to communicate bad news to family members, including children or to answer questions from the family. Hospices also have counsellors who can offer help and advice about breaking bad news.

How children react to the news that a parent is seriously ill depends on the child, the situation, and support they have. Teenagers in particular can seem to be so wrapped up in their own lives that their parents may wonder if they have understood that the illness is life threatening. A woman with colorectal cancer explained that her teenage daughter needed space and time to adjust to changed circumstances. Another woman, seriously ill with lung disease, had told her teenage children that it was OK to get angry about her ill health and to cry.


 

See our dying and bereavement resources for more information.

Last reviewed July 2017

Last update May 2010.

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