Talking to children about your cancer

To help understand the diagnosis, children need age-appropriate explanations. If you’ve explained cancer and its treatment before, it might be easier to start the discussion. However, you might find it harder to talk about the cancer spreading and being difficult to treat. The conversation may be easier if you think about the questions children may ask and work out a response beforehand.

Once children know the cancer is advanced, they will need to be given some idea of the prognosis.

Learn more about talking to:

To read more suggestions about discussing cancer with children, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Talking to Kids About Cancer, or download a digital copy from this page.

Young children

Even if they are young, your children will probably suspect that something is wrong. They may notice changes at home, such as your distress or an increase in visitors. Assure children that the disease is no-one’s fault.

Children may think they, or their behaviour, caused the cancer. They might also fear the same thing happening to them or someone else they know.

Children will want to know in advance when you will be staying in hospital or needing rest at home. They will want to know that there will always be someone to care for them.

If you are a sole parent, finding someone to look after your children may be harder. It may help to talk to a social worker about what’s available in your local area.


Quick tips:

  • Listen and be alert to their feelings, this gives you an idea of what they can handle.
  • Communicate feelings as well as facts.
  • Give simple, honest answers, and clarify any confusion.
  • Explain what will happen next and give children realistic hope, e.g. that the family can still enjoy time together.
  • Don’t make promises you may be unable to keep.
  • Reassure them that they didn’t cause the cancer.
  • Try to keep family routines and boundaries as normal as possible.
  • Provide extra physical and verbal expressions of love. Children may become clingy, angry or withdrawn – all are natural reactions.
Read more about talking to young children

Teenage children

Teenagers react in different ways, ranging from withdrawal to offers of help and assurances of love. Like younger children, teenagers can feel abandoned as the family concentrates on the sick person.

Instead of focusing on themselves, teenagers may be required to deal with the needs of the family. Because of these pressures, there may be outbursts over trivial things.

Teenage children may feel upset by how unfair the situation seems and also react to feelings that they are not really aware of, or cannot acknowledge, like anger, guilt or grief.

Quick tips:

  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings, but understand they may find it easier to confide in friends, teachers or other trusted people.
  • Help them find ways to express their feelings in different ways, e.g. listening to music, playing sports, writing in a journal.
  • Negotiate role changes in the family.
  • Keep their routine as normal as possible – school, homework, activities and social outings.
  • Provide resources for learning more about cancer and getting support and counselling, such as Canteen’s website.
Read more about talking to teenage children

Adult children

Adult children may feel overwhelmed when they find out you have advanced cancer. They can become aware of their own desire to have a parent around forever. They may feel guilty because they have to juggle other responsibilities (e.g. a job or caring for children of their own) or they live far away.

You might feel you have to, or want to, carry on as the head of the family, reassuring everyone that things are the same as always. Having to rely on your adult children may make you feel uncomfortable, particularly if you need help with feeding or bathing. However, your adult children may see it as their opportunity to look after you and show their love.

Quick tips:

  • Provide information about your condition to your grown-up children to help them cope with their feelings.
  • Involve them in decision-making about treatment or activities you want to continue. They may have valuable input.
  • Discuss ways your children might be able to help you, while still managing their other responsibilities.
  • Organise or make time to spend with your children so you can create meaningful memories together.
Read more about talking to adult children

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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