Ask An Expert / Trauma and Grief

How can I talk to young children about a grandparent’s cancer?

Dealing with uncertainty is tough for kids and parents

Clark Goldstein, PhD

How can I break the news of a grandmother's cancer to 10-year-old twins and their 7-year-old brother? She may start treatment soon and they may see the effects of the medication.

I’m sorry to hear of your parent’s illness and wish her a speedy and full recovery. It can be challenging to figure out how to speak to your children about serious illness. I would suggest the following:

  1. Try to be calm when talking to the children (or in front of them) about their grandmother’s illness. It’s appropriate for them to know that you are concerned and that you care about her, but getting highly emotional in front of young children can be unnecessarily confusing and scary for them.
  2. Give them basic information about the disease, with an emphasis on what is being done to help their grandmother. Let them know how the treatment (or disease) might impact her physical appearance, activity level, and interactions with them.
  3. Follow your children’s lead. Answer questions as clearly as you can without sharing details that might be hard to understand or unnecessarily upsetting. Be honest when you are asked questions about information you don’t have: It’s okay to say you don’t know.
  4. Be prepared for your children to respond in any number of ways. Some children may seem unfazed and have nothing to say at the time. Others might become upset and/or have many questions.
  5. Avoid the temptation to give them false reassurance. Remember that young children have difficulty understanding probability. Let them know that you understand how hard it is to tolerate uncertainty about what is going to happen, but it’s something we have to learn to live with.
  6. Let children know that whatever they are feeling is acceptable, whether they’re confused, sad, angry, or indifferent. Avoid leading questions like, “Are you really sad?” and ask more general questions, such as, “How are you feeling about what we’re talking about?”
  7. Depending on how you think the children might react, you may wish to speak to your 10-year-olds and your 7-year-old separately.
  8. Help your children support their grandmother in age-appropriate ways, with things like making cards, phone calls, and visiting when appropriate.
  9. It’s important to take care of yourself. Talk with friends and family to help support you during this challenging time in your life.