Breaking bad news to your children

Telling your children you’re unwell can be very tricky, here's a guide to make it easier.
How to break bad news to your children

When you are diagnosed with a serious illness, it’s not just you who may be left reeling by the news – your children are also likely to be very upset. Telling your kids you’re sick can be very tricky, especially if you don’t know what your prognosis is or you’re having trouble coming to terms with it yourself.

Throw feeling lousy into the mix and it’s not going to be an easy conversation to have. So how do you break the news and how much should you reveal? Here are some guidelines that may help.

Wait until you have all the details

Chances are your children may realise something is up, especially if you have been showing symptoms for some time. However, before you tell them, make sure you have all the facts, so you can answer their questions. If you seem to know a lot about what’s wrong with you, it can make you appear more confident to your child – and that will help them to feel more secure.

Plan what you are going to say

Again, the more self-assured you are when it comes to telling your kids you’re sick, the more reassured they are going to feel. If you think you might be too emotional or overwhelmed, ask a trusted adult to break the news to them – but make sure you are either there when they do it or they can see you straight afterwards, so they know you’re okay.

They’ll need a hug from you. Also be prepared to let them know how this is likely to affect them – for example, if they will need to be cared for by other people while you are in hospital.

Be as honest as possible

They don’t need all the gory details, but be as open as you can. For example, if you have cancer, use the word and also explain what it is and how it can be treated in simple language. Make the point, especially to older children, that cancer is treatable – many of them will have heard about it and may fear it’s a death sentence.

Tell them in a way that’s appropriate for their age

Too much information when they’re little will only serve to confuse and possibly scare them. On the other hand, using childish language or leaving out important points will make teenagers think they are being lied to and they’ll suspect things are actually worse than they are.

Decide how much they can cope with before you tell them and, if necessary, ask for advice from a child psychologist or other medical experts. There are also some good resources available – try support groups for your particular condition.

Make sure they know it’s not their fault you’re sick

Younger children in particular may think that your illness is something to do with them. They need to be reassured this is not the case. They may also need convincing that what’s wrong with you is not catching and they won’t get sick too.

Be prepared for all kinds of responses

They might cry, they might get angry, they might say, “Okay, what’s for dinner?” Younger children may find it difficult to grasp the significance of your news, because it is not happening to them, and they won’t understand how your illness impacts on their life until you can’t do things for them because you are unwell.

Older ones can take the news worse than you did, especially if they have a vivid imagination. Be as reassuring as you can and make sure they know they can always talk to you.

What if you decide not to tell them?

You may come to the conclusion that it’s better for your children not to know you are sick – or the extent of your illness. This may be a suitable choice if they’re very young or you’re likely to recover quickly, without it having too much of an impact on your routine.

But, bear in mind children may pick up on the fact that something is going on and feel hurt and confused you didn’t tell them. If they learn about it from another person, they could be angry with you for not telling them and also fear things are worse than they are being told. So, honesty is often the best policy.

Common questions from kids

Here are some questions that children commonly ask when they learn a parent is sick:

  • Are you going to die?

  • Who will look after me if you get too sick or die?

  • Am I going to get sick too?

  • What should I tell my friends?

  • Why have you got sick?

  • Will you have to go to hospital?

  • When are you going to be better again?

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