Talking to Children about Serious Illness

Five Myths, Debunked

When there is a serious illness in the family, children need to trust the adults in their family more than ever. Changes can be confusing, from the disruptions to daily routines to the changes in their loved one’s physical appearance. That’s why it’s so important to communicate openly and honestly with children throughout this process.

Still, myths about whether children are “ready” or need to be “protected” abound. Here, we discuss why these common beliefs may be causing more harm than good.

Myth 1: Children are too young to understand.

Reality: Even very young children can sense when there is a change or problem. They are very observant and will often have an awareness of what has happened even before they are told of an illness, accident or impending death.

Myth 2: Children need to be protected at all costs.

Reality: Many adults try to “protect” because they fear the child will be traumatized by the knowledge that something serious has happened. In reality, children can often sense when information is being withheld, which only causes increased anxiety as they feel less in control of their world. They may also imagine the situation is far more serious than the truth.

Myth 3: Children don’t need to be involved.

Reality: Being involved and included helps the child feel like an important, valued part of the family. They need age-appropriate ways to participate and to help. Explore the child’s immediate needs. By sharing information and encouraging conversation, you can better understand the child’s ability to cope with visiting a sick person or being around family members who are very sad.

Myth 4: If a child seems fine, don’t try to talk about the illness.

Don’t assume that you know how a child is feeling. Children express feelings differently than adults. Rather than talking about their feelings, their emotional struggle may be seen in changes to their sleeping or eating patterns. They may regress, doing things a younger child might do.  Or there may be changes in play behavior and performance at school.

After a crisis situation, children usually have three major fears they may or may not verbalize: Did I cause this? Will it happen to me? Will it happen to someone else that I love?

Myth 5: Adults should not show sad feelings in front of children.

Adults need to model healthy, visible expressions of loss and pain. Children can feel isolated if they can’t observe an adult’s sadness. Sharing those feelings lets a child realize that, in time, the adult’s pain is lessened and healing does occur.


Do you know a Kindergarten-5th grader who is coping with the serious illness of a loved one? They are invited to join Kids Path for Feelings Field Day, a workshop to explore healthy ways of coping with change. Click here to learn more.

Learn more about Kids Path’s counseling services here.