Talking to a child about illness and death can feel daunting at an already difficult time. Wanting to protect a child is natural, but it is important that a child is told, as not doing so can cause anxiety and confusion.

How to tell a child about illness

Before you start:

  • Decide how much you want them to know and what you feel ready to tell them. Every family is different, so judge whether you want to speak to the child alone or with someone else.
  • If you have children of different ages, it might be better to speak to them separately as the level of conversation will depend, in part, on their age.
  • Make sure the information you give will be consistent from all the adults involved in their lives such as other family members and teachers.

It is best to use simple, straightforward language. Medical terms might be confusing for some children, so try to explain the illness in simple, age-appropriate terms.

Keep the conversation honest and the information specific to the situation. Above all, give them plenty of reassurance. Let them know that even though the person they love is ill, they still love them and they will be cared for.

Children’s understanding of illness

Children’s understanding will generally depend on their age. Below is a general guide of children’s understanding of illness and death at different ages:

0-3 years old

  • Children younger than 3 are aware of changes in their daily routine but can’t grasp what is happening. They can sense distress and will react to unfamiliar environments and faces.

3-5 years old

  • Children aged between 3 and 5 don’t fully understand illness and may believe they can catch it or they won’t get better if they become ill. They may struggle with separation or revert to behaviour they have outgrown e.g. bedwetting and tantrums.

5-9 years old

  • Children aged 5-9 years old understand illness. They are likely to ask lots of questions and will want straightforward answers. They can verbally express their feelings much better, but may also show physical symptoms such as loss of appetite.

9-12 years old

  • Children of this age will want more specific details as their understanding of illness and emotions is better. They might turn to their friends for support, or try to step into an adult role to be helpful.

Teenagers

  • Teenagers normally understand illness fully, but can be reluctant to talk about their feelings. Some may become angry or hostile and prefer to be alone. Let them know you are there if they need anything.

How Trinity can help

At Trinity, we understand the impact illness can have on a family. Our Patient and Family Support Team is here to help you and your child cope. We offer both pre-bereavement and bereavement support for children and families, as well as art therapy. We also run Kaleidoscope, a support group for bereaved children aged 8-12.

Children are welcome to attend our two annual bereavement events, which you can contact 0207 787 1090 to find out more about.

Download our leaflet on talking to a child about a life-limiting illness