A guide to talking to kids about cancer

Updated 5 Aug 2019.

Guide for talking to kids about cancer


When someone they know is diagnosed with cancer, a child can have a range of reactions. These general guidelines may help you to pick up on signs of distress in children and provide age-appropriate support.


Dealing with cancer 4-7 years old

In their younger years, children have a basic understanding of sickness. When someone they know has cancer, they may worry that they will catch the disease or that they caused it (e.g. by being naughty or thinking bad thoughts about the person). At this age, most children are egocentric: they often think everything is related to them and may not yet empathise with others. They tend to notice (and comment on) physical changes. Young children may be just starting to realise that people, including parents, can die.


Possible reactions

Suggested approaches

  • regression, e.g. stopping reading, starting to suck their thumb again
  • comfort-seeking behaviours, e.g. using a security blanket or special toy as a comfort object, thumb-sucking
  • stuttering or baby talk
  • withdrawing from conversations
  • hiding behind a parent or significant adult when meeting other people
  • fear of separation from others, especially at bedtime and going to school
  • fear of the dark, monsters, animals, strangers and the unknown
  • disturbed sleep, e.g. sleeplessness, wanting to sleep with a parent, sleepwalking or sleep talking nightmares, bedwetting
  • hyperactivity or apathy
  • aggression, e.g. hitting or biting
  • repeating questions about the same topic, even if it has been discussed several times
  • commenting on physical changes and teasing if they don't understand them
  • listen to their feelings  (expressed through speech or play) and be alert to their needs (including little things like lunch money)
  • use picture books, dolls or stuffed animals to talk about the cancer
  • read books together that explore anger, sadness and other feelings
  • be honest
  • reassure them that they will be taken care of and will be safe
  • provide brief and simple explanations, but use all of the cancer terminology they may encounter; repeat your explanations if necessary
  • keep routines consistent where possible, and explain any changes to their schedule
  • encourage them to have fun at school and enjoy their other activities; physical activity can help to release anxiety and tension
  • assure them they have not caused the cancer by their behaviour or thoughts, nor will they catch cancer
  • continue usual discipline and limit-setting



Dealing with cancer 7-12 years old

By this age most children are ready for more complex explanations of cancer and cells. Like younger children, they may feel responsible for causing the cancer of someone they know and may blame it on their own bad behaviour. Many are starting to comprehend the finality of death and its impact (especially if they have been exposed to death at a young age.)


Possible reactions Suggested approaches

• Irritability, anxiety, guilt, envy

• Sadness, crying

• Physical complaints, e.g. headaches, stomach-aches

• School refusal

• Separation anxiety when going to school or away to camp

• Hostile reactions, e.g. fighting or yelling

• Poor concentration or daydreaming at school, possibly with a change in academic performance

• Withdrawal from friends and family

• Self-consciousness, feeling like the odd one out

• Fear of performance, punishment or new situations

• Sensitivity to shame and embarrassment

• Trying to be extra good (more commonly seen in girls)

 • Listen to their feelings (expressed through speech or play) and be alert to their needs

• Use books to explain disease, cancer, treatment and potential outcomes

• Assure them their behaviour or thoughts did not cause the cancer

• Be honest

• Reassure them about their care and schedule

• Maintain clear rules and expectations

• Assure them that the chances of someone else getting cancer are slim

• Let them know how they can help a teacher, classmate, sibling or parent with cancer

• Take time to listen and let them know you care about their feelings

• Appoint a teacher, staff member or buddy to ‘watch out for' them

• If the prognosis is poor, ask for help from a social worker or psychologist to gently broach the topic of a parent, teach or classmate dying


More information

If you, your child or someone you know is experiencing cancer, we can help. Visit our talking to your children about cancer page for more information or read our publications Cancer in the School Community and Talking to Kids About Cancer. For more detailed information or advice please contact us on 13 11 20.


Found in:  News - 2018 | View all news