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Talking to children about illness and a loved one’s health

When the Princess of Wales announced her cancer diagnosis, she made it clear that she’d taken time to help her children understand what’s happening and come to terms with her illness, whilst remaining optimistic for a full recovery. 

When a loved one falls ill, especially with a condition as serious as cancer, it’s natural to want to protect children from the harsh realities of the situation. However, shielding them completely may lead to confusion, fear, and misunderstandings.

As a parent, finding the right words to explain illness can be daunting. But open communication is essential for helping children cope and understand what’s happening around them. 


Understanding Children’s Developmental Stages:

Children process information differently depending on their age and developmental stage. Tailoring your approach to their level of understanding can help them grasp the situation more effectively.


Preschoolers (Ages 2-5):

    • Preschoolers have limited comprehension of illness and may associate it with temporary separations or discomfort.
    • Keep explanations simple and concrete. For example, “Grandma is feeling unwell, so she needs to visit the doctors to get better.”
    • Use familiar language and reassure them that they are not to blame for the illness.
    • Use imaginative play to give them a tool to process the information or escape from it if needed
    • Offer plenty of cuddles and physical reassurance.


School-Aged Children (Ages 6-12):

    • School-aged children have a better understanding of illness but may still struggle with abstract concepts and uncertainties.
    • Be honest about the illness using age-appropriate language. For example, “The doctors found a sickness in Dad’s body called cancer.”
    • Encourage questions and provide clear, truthful answers. Avoid using euphemisms that may confuse them.
    • Reassure them that they are loved and supported and that it’s okay to feel worried or upset.
    • Offer outlets for expression, such as drawing or journaling, and look for books that help explain things in an accessible manner.


Teenagers (Ages 13-18):


    • Teenagers have a more mature understanding of illness but may still struggle with complex emotions and fears about the future.
    • Involve them in discussions about the illness and treatment decisions, respecting their autonomy and opinions.
    • Provide accurate information about the prognosis, acknowledging uncertainties but also emphasising hope and support.
    • Encourage them to seek additional support from trusted adults or peer groups if needed.
    • Validate their feelings and offer coping strategies, such as mindfulness or talking to a counsellor.


Dealing with the uncertainty of illness, especially conditions like cancer, can be challenging for both adults and children. But there are proven strategies you can use to help navigate this uncertainty:


Open Communication:

    • Be honest about what is known and unknown about the illness. Children appreciate honesty and can sense when information is being withheld.
    • Acknowledge that the future is uncertain but emphasise that you’re there to support each other through whatever comes.
    • Encourage questions and provide reassurance that it’s okay not to have all the answers.


Maintain Routines and Stability:

    • Children thrive on routines, so try to maintain normalcy as much as possible amidst the upheaval of illness.
    • Keep school and extracurricular activities consistent to provide stability and a sense of normality.
    • Create opportunities for quality time together, whether it’s playing games, reading stories, or simply enjoying each other’s company.


Seek Support:

    • Don’t hesitate to reach out for support from healthcare professionals, support groups, or counselling services.
    • Organisations like Maggie’s Cancer Charity, Marie Curie, and Macmillan Cancer Support offer valuable resources and guidance for families navigating cancer and there are charities for most conditions that can help..
    • Connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can provide comfort and practical advice.


Having open and honest, age-appropriate conversations with children about the illness of a loved one, such as cancer, is crucial for their emotional well-being and understanding. The most important thing is to let children (of whatever age) lead the conversation – don’t dismiss their questions but equally, don’t over-burden them with too much detail before they are ready. By letting children know it’s ok to ask questions and that you’re not hiding anything from them, and then answering their questions simply, leaving the door open for them to ask further questions you’ll be able to support your children throughout the process.