Talking to your children

Some people avoid telling their children they have cancer. However, children usually sense something is wrong even if they don’t know what it is. When they’re not told what is going on, children may imagine the worst. They may also find out from someone else, which can make them feel angry and confused.

Some parents think they are protecting their children by withholding bad news. In fact, your children may benefit from an open and honest approach. With planning, practice and support from family/whānau or health professionals, most parents are able to talk to their children about cancer.

Consider what you will say and how you will say it before the discussion. Talk to children in a language they understand – younger children need simple explanations and teenagers and young adults might ask for more details. Reassure them that their needs are important. Knowledge and understanding can help them to feel more in control, in much the same way that it helps adults.

Communicating with children gives them the opportunity to ask questions and to express their feelings. Encourage your children to tell you what they know about cancer. This gives you the chance to clear up any misunderstandings. Children may also need reassurance that your illness is not their fault.

Tell other people close to your children (grandparents, friends and school teachers) about your diagnosis and your plan for talking to your children, so that you all say similar things. Trusted friends can also talk to your children about cancer if you feel unable.


  • Tell children how you’re feeling. Honesty and openness is important when communicating about cancer.
  • Listen – give children a chance to discuss their feelings.
  • Answer questions simply and honestly. If you don’t know the answers to their questions it’s okay to tell them that you don’t.
  • Some children find it helpful to visit the treatment centre. Check with hospital staff if you can bring them along to a treatment appointment. This may help them understand what is happening.
  • Reassure them of your love.
  • Do things together. Read them a story, help with their homework or watch television together.
  • Ask a favourite relative or friend to devote extra time and attention to them.
  • Talk to their school teacher or school counsellor.
  • Assure them that cancer is not contagious. Tell them that nothing they did or didn’t do caused the cancer.
  • Assure them they will be looked after throughout your cancer treatment, even if you can’t always do it yourself.
  • Keep to usual routines as much as possible and try to let them know in advance if these will change, for example, “Mum will pick you up after school today rather than Dad”.

Call the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) or your local Cancer Society for a copy of the booklet Cancer in the Family: Talking to your children. The Cancer Society also has a range of books on this subject that you can borrow – call 0800 CANCER (226 237) for suggestions.

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