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Learning modules

Activity 7: How to communicate with children

Giving children support

Children of parents with life-limiting illnesses can experience stress and need support. When a parent is ill, the child's usual sources of support can often be disrupted.

The following information provides an outline of the factors affecting a child’s responses to a parent’s diagnosis of a life-limiting illness. The information was developed to inform a training package for health professionals working in this field. These factors are specific to three developmental stages.

The following information can be read in conjunction with the brochure What do parents want? This is a helpful guide for parents with advanced cancer on how to communicate and handle things with their children. [1]

Developmental stages

It is recommended that you employ age-appropriate communication with the child. It is important to talk at their level of understanding and take cues from their responses.

1. Children up to 8 years

Younger children are egocentric. Important points to remember about this age group include:

  • reinforcing that they are not being blamed for the cancer
  • make sure they understand that their behaviour will have no influence on the outcome i.e. not telling them to ‘be good’ so that the parent can be well
  • reassure them that they will always be safe and cared for.

2. Children between 8-12 years

Children in this age group may be concerned that they won't be accepted by their friends and peers and for some, being different for any reason may be distressing. Children in this age group need:

  • relevant information aimed specifically for their level of understanding
  • to maintain relationships with their peers
  • to continue to participate in affirming activities, such as sport
  • ongoing opportunities to talk about comments from their peers and how these comments make them feel.

3. Children 12 years and up

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable when a parent is seriously ill. Background tension is likely to be exacerbated. Adolescents need:

  • acknowledgement and discussion of changed family roles
  • negotiation rather than imposition of domestic tasks
  • to maintain their social relationships
  • access to specific and relevant information about death and dying
  • many opportunities to talk openly about the cancer with their parents. [2]

Avoiding communication about dying can sometimes cause more worry and keep children from telling others how they feel. However it may also be harmful to confront children with information that they are not ready to take in.

Thinking points


1. Turner, J., Clavarino, A., Yates, P., Hargraves, M., Connors, V., Hausmann, S. (2007). Development of a resource for parents with advanced cancer: What do parents want? Palliative and Supportive Care, 5, 135-145.

2. Turner, J., Clavarino, A., Yates, P., Hargraves, M., Connors, V., Hausmann, S. (2008). Enhancing the supportive care of parents with advanced cancer: Development of a self-directed educational manual. European Journal of Cancer, 12(44), 1625-1631.