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Talking to children of different ages

How you talk to children about dying will depend on how old they are.

Very young children

With children younger than 5, the main issues are that they might:

  • be afraid of being separated from the people they love
  • feel guilty
  • not understand what death is and that the person will never come back

But even young children will understand that something is wrong. They live in the moment, so what is happening at the time is what’s important to them.

Their sadness or anxiety might come out in ways that aren’t easy to spot. For example, through the way they move and play.

  • A quiet child might become loud, throw toys around and appear very angry.
  • A normally happy and confident child could become clingy. Or they might cry at things that didn't bother them before.
  • They may withdraw from playing with other children as much as they used to.

It is important to notice these signs and changes, and to support your child as best you can.

Experts encourage adults to talk openly and honestly with very young children. You don't need to tell them everything in depth. But you can use simple language and explain things they don’t understand.

Children between 8 and 12

Children aged between 8 and 12 can usually understand that serious illness may lead to death.

Their feelings might come out in the way they behave. They can feel guilty or feel that the illness is somehow their fault.

They might also feel angry with the parent for not being able to give them enough attention. Or they could be angry because you are going to leave them when you die.

It helps to understand that children of all ages can react as if they were much younger when they are feeling stressed.

Be sensitive but straightforward when talking to children of this age. If you are too subtle, they won't understand what you are trying to say. 

Teenagers

The teenage years are full of emotional ups and downs. Teenagers can feel confused and unsure about themselves.

The teenage years are also a time to establish independence. This can make it difficult for adolescents to express their feelings and reach out to other people for support.

They might become distant from their family and talk to their friends instead. Or they may keep it all to themselves.

They might become anxious, angry, moody, or depressed. Or they may pretend that they’re coping very well, when actually inside they feel very scared and lonely.

A teenager’s reactions are likely to be more intense than an adult's. It’s very important to give them time to grieve about the illness, and to include them in what is happening.

They might find it helpful to look at the riprap website. It's for young people when a parent has cancer and it has stories from other young people in similar situations.

Adult children

Of course, adult children will also struggle at times. Even when children are grown up, the death of a parent is one of the most difficult things to cope with. 

It can help to be as open and honest as possible and include them in the situation.

Help and support for your children

Last reviewed: 
11 May 2016
  • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer (CSG4)
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2004

  • Adolescent grief: "It never really hit me...until it actually happened"
    GH.Christ (and others)
    Journal of the American Medical Association. 2002 Sep 11;288 (10):1269-78

  • Current approaches to helping children cope with a parent's terminal illness
    GH.Christ and AE.Christ 
    A Cancer Jounal for Clinicians. 2006 Jul-Aug;56 (4):197-212 

  • Outpatient management of Advanced Cancer - Symptom control, Support, and Hospice in the Home
    BJ. Andrew
    J.B Lippincott Company, 1985

Information and help

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