Young children: When is it time to talk about cancer?

You need to tell your children that you have cancer, but you’ve been waiting for the right time. There’s never a “perfect” time, though, to give this kind of news to young children.

When to talk

When talking with children who are less than six years old, pick a time when they can pay attention to what you have to say. Some times may be better than others.

  • Tell your children only when YOU feel ready to talk about your cancer.
  • Some parents have found that it’s best to talk with their children before starting cancer treatments: Their kids worry less since they know what’s happening, and it builds trust between them.
  • Pick a time when your children are not in the middle of a favorite game or activity.
  • Leave lots of time after your talk, so that you can answer your children’s questions without rushing.
  • Try not to talk about your diagnosis right before bedtime: Your children will be tired, and the news could upset their sleep.
  • Don’t try to talk with your children before they have a big event or special occasion.
  • You don’t have to cover everything the first time. There will be many other chances to talk.
  • Good talks can happen whenever the time feels right: For example, you could talk when driving in the car together, or during a walk.
  • Your oncology nurse or social worker may have suggestions for special books that can explain cancer to your child.
  • Let other family members and close friends know when you’ll be talking with your child; they might be able to help answer questions, and give extra support to your child if it’s needed.

Some ways that young children react

When a parent talks about having cancer:

  • Some young children may be very worried: They might expect that something bad will happen to you right away.
  • Some young children may not seem worried at all, especially if it doesn’t look like you’re sick.
  • Some young children aren’t able to understand a lot of information all at once, so they may stop paying attention if you give them too many details.


American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer.

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from

Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins

National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Retrieved 7/1/08 from