How do I tell my children that I have a life-threatening illness?

We have gathered together some expert information and resources to help you work out how to share the facts with your children and to support them to understand what is happening.

This is a really tough question; one that no parent wants to face and no young person wants to hear from their parent.

However the reality is, from a professional viewpoint, that this hard conversation needs to happen – sooner rather than later.

Being open and honest, in language that is clear to your own child, is the best thing to do for the following reasons.

Children are like sponges and their internal antennae pick up every little spoken or unspoken vibe within the family network. If they aren’t told what is happening, their thought process will go into overdrive and find a ‘story’ that best fits the underlying atmosphere. They will draw their own, often hugely negative, conclusion as to what is happening.

During the early stages of diagnosis, nothing is very clear and it might well be that you all have some anxious waiting time to find out about what the diagnosis is and what the treatment will be. This waiting is hard for everyone, so your younger family members will need you to be as honest as you can be through this uncertainty. If you don’t know; it’s ok to say you don’t know but if you can give a timeline of when you are likely to find out some news, then this can be the reassurance that is needed.

Without open and honest conversations, children will imagine the worst scenario; that one of their parents is going to die. They can believe that it’s going to happen right now. Their brain is still developing and the ‘rationalising frontal lobe’ is far from being fully functioning. Therefore, they rely on their more primitive, emotional, survival brain, which can’t ‘think’ it can only react; and their responses will assume the worst.

There is always Hope.

​Hope Support Services is the UK charity for young people when a close family member is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, such as cancer.

Another way to help your children feel less alone is to tell them about Hope. We offer confidential one-to-one support and a private peer community for young people aged 11+, where they can share their feelings in a safe environment, support others going through a similar situation or talk confidentially to a member of our trained staff team.

Find out more about what Hope can offer your family here.

More helpful resources and advice to help you find the words to say.

​We have gathered together some expert information and resources to help you work out how to share the facts with your children and to support them to understand what is happening.

1. Macmillan have some really helpful advice on their website here about how to share your news with children of different ages and how to support them in understanding what it means. Their information addresses speaking about a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness, not cancer specifically. They have also produced a downloadable booklet that guides you through the process, open the pdf here.

2. ‘Telling Kids about Cancer’ is an American website that contains comprehensive step-by-step information on how to hold conversations about cancer diagnoses and treatment with your children. It includes audio clips of parents and children talking about their experiences. A lot of the information will be relevant for other kinds of life-threatening or terminal illnesses too.

3. A Google search will bring up a great range of books available to help children of all ages to understand illness, grief and bereavement, and to help you to have conversations that are helpful and supportive with your children.

One book that caught our eye is ‘My Parent has Cancer and it Really Sucks’ by Marc and Maya Silver. It is written by an American father and daughter, Maya was a teenager when her Mum was diagnosed with cancer. It is for teenagers and is full of stories and advice from teenagers about their own experiences of having a parent with cancer. It is a really helpful way to let your teenage children know that they are not the only ones who have experienced this.

For more information and links to other sites that may be able to help you find information about your specific illness or situation, try our Links page here.

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