Leukaemia Foundation

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Telling Children

Children tend to be very sensitive to people's emotions. They may sense that something is not quite right or they may believe that they have done something wrong to upset the other members of their family. Children can also take on an exaggerated level of responsibility for things happening around them. Unless they have some sense of what is happening and that it is not their fault, they may worry even more than if they are told the truth from the start.

It is not easy to tell a child about a diagnosis of cancer. The amount of information that can be given often varies with the child's age and level of emotional development. No one knows your child better than you and no one can tell you when or how to tell them about your illness. In general, it is important to have an open and honest approach, giving them as much information as you are comfortable with.

Helpful suggestions

The amount of information you give your child will depend on their age and level of intellectual and emotional development.

  • Use simple language that makes sense to your child.
  • Try to give them accurate information and answer their questions as honestly as you can.
  • Try not to be overly pessimistic or overly optimistic.
  • Give the child opportunities to talk about how they are feeling. It may be helpful to reassure them that their emotions are normal.
  • Encourage them to write or draw to help work out their feelings.
  • Give the child opportunities to ask questions. This is a useful way to check their understanding and to find out what they are most worried about.
  • Reassure them that the illness is not their fault and that you always love them even if you have to be away from them for a while.
  • It can be helpful to talk to the child's teacher/carer and let them know about the situation at home. Some schools have counsellors who can help.
  • If it makes you feel more comfortable, allow another adult (parent or close friend) to tell your child about the diagnosis.
  • Ask for some help from the hospital's social worker, counsellor or psychologist. They may be able to help you prepare to speak to your child.
  • There are books and videos available for children of different ages. They may be available at your hospital or the Leukaemia Foundation.
  • If possible, bring children to the hospital or clinic if you feel that they are old enough to cope with the situation. The reality of what happens there is often better than what children imagine.

Although it is not always possible, it is important to try to prepare children for any changes to their normal routines. For example, it is important that they understand any changes in roles and responsibilities within the family. They may also need to know about alternative care arrangements that need to be made, sometimes at short notice.