Why talk to kids about cancer?

Talking about cancer can seem overwhelming, but there is strong evidence that being open with children helps them cope with the cancer diagnosis of someone close to them. There are many reasons why it is best to be honest with children.

Secrecy can make things worse

  • Some parents avoid talking about cancer because they want to protect their children. However, research shows that children who are told about a loved one’s illness – particularly a parent’s – cope better than children who are kept in the dark.
  • Keeping secrets can add to your stress – you may worry about whether you should tell, or feel guilty if you don’t say something. You may need to change your routine without your children knowing, which can be hard.

You can’t fool kids

  • Children are observant. No matter how hard you try to hide a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. Even if it’s not a parent with the cancer but a close relative, such as a grandparent, this can cause stress that kids may pick up on.
  • They will notice changes at home, such as your sadness, whispered conversations, closed doors, an increase in the number of phone calls or visitors, and possibly less attention being shown to them. These signs may be more obvious to older children and teenagers, but even young children can sense a change.
  • If your kids suspect there’s a serious problem and you haven’t told them about it, they may make up their own explanation. Their ideas are often worse than the real situation.

They have a right to know

  • Children can feel deeply hurt if they suspect or discover they have been excluded from something important to them and their family.
  • Sharing information shows you trust and value them, which can enhance their self-esteem.
  • The diagnosis may also be a chance for your kids to learn about living with uncertainty and how to cope when life doesn’t go to plan. This helps build their resilience.

They might find out from someone else

  • Ideally, children should hear about a cancer diagnosis from their parents or someone delegated by their parents, particularly if it is the parent, a relative or close friend with cancer.
  • If you don’t tell your children, there is a chance your kids will hear about the cancer from someone else or overhear a conversation. Overhearing the news can give your children the wrong idea. They may think the topic is too terrible for you to talk about, or that they are not important enough to be included in family discussions.
  • Kids may also misunderstand information and think a situation is much worse than it is. They may feel afraid to ask questions. They might worry in silence or spread incorrect information to other children in the family.

Kids can cope

  • You may wonder how children will get through a cancer diagnosis in the family. But there is evidence that, with good support, children can cope.
  • Research shows that a key factor in helping kids get through difficult times is a close relationship with an adult who values and supports them, and accepts them for who they are. That adult can be a parent, a grandparent, a favourite aunt or uncle or a family friend.

Children need a chance to talk

  • Talking to your children about cancer gives them the chance to tell you how they feel and lets them know it is okay to ask questions.
  • Sometimes kids will open up to adults who are not their parents.

You are the expert

  • With careful thought and preparation, you can use your knowledge of your children to talk with them about cancer.
  • Sometimes it may take a few attempts before you find the best way for your family.

When you can’t talk about cancer

  • Some parents don’t want to tell their children at all and try hard to hide the diagnosis.
  • People have their own reasons for not telling children, including cultural differences, family circumstances and the death of a close relative from cancer.
  • Sometimes you may not know how serious the cancer is and you want to wait to find out more before telling your kids.
  • The person with cancer may be expected to make a quick recovery with few side effects. In this case, you might think it’s not worth mentioning the diagnosis to your children.
View our editorial policy