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Supporting a child with a sick parent

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An exhausted mum trying to take a nap with her baby


It’s never easy for children to hear that their parent is ill.

It might be a very serious illness, such as cancer or a less serious illness that still means the parent will be struggling to keep up the usual duties of parenthood. The impact will be felt by the whole family; the parent, children, spouse and even grandparents.

If the primary carer is sick, then someone else will likely take on more responsibility within the family. That may mean someone having to share more tasks and compromising their availability to the rest of the children.

Sharing the news about a sick parent

Communicating the news of an ill parent to a child can be challenging.

Parents might be caught between wanting to give children information so they are fully informed, but stopping short of giving them “too much information” in case they cause stress.

According to Professor Kerry Sherman from the Centre of Emotional Health at Macquarie University, how you tell your child about a parents’ illness is always dependent on their age and the developmental stage.   

“Typically, we find that up to three-year-olds won't understand the concept of illness. It’s just too much for them to really grasp at that age. But, after the age of three, there’s an opportunity for parents to explain to their child in very simple terms, that their mother or father is not well,” Professor Sherman says.

“That might lead to more questions which you will need to answer. There are some simple ways to go about telling your child that won’t make the child worry too much.

“It might be a good idea to be open with them about the fact that mum or dad might not be feeling well enough to read them their favourite book.

“Maybe they could come and sit on their parent’s lap while the other parent reads the book. That’s an effective way to show the child without alarming them. So, it’s about setting some expectations that the parent might not be quite as able to do things that they would usually be able to do.”

How to explain a parent's illness

Explaining a parent’s illness could also be a new opportunity to change the activities the child usually does with that parent.

Professor Sherman says this is one way to turn the period of a parent’s illness into something positive for the child.

“So, let's say it's mum who is unwell and that she would normally be kicking a ball around in the backyard with the kids or running around with them – maybe that activity will change to reading to them or cooking, or something within mum's capacity. So there are plenty of ways you can still keep that connection with the kids and maintain that sense of continuity,” Professor Sherman says.

“It’s important that there is not too much disruption to the rhythm of the day or the rhythm of their family life. It’s also a good idea to be able to set realistic expectations for the child, so they know what’s going to happen from day to day.”

It’s important that there is not too much disruption to the rhythm of the day or the rhythm of their family life. It’s also a good idea to be able to set realistic expectations for the child, so they know what’s going to happen from day to day.
Professor Kerry Sherman

Parents can also talk to their children about the concept of time; explaining if a parent needs to spend some time in hospital or if they need to go elsewhere to receive treatment.

For example, a parent could tell their child that they’ll only be in hospital for “a very short time” or that their time apart “won’t be very long.” Most of all, it’s important to explain to children with words and phrases that you know your child will understand.

Professor Sherman says parents also need to ensure their child or children don’t try to blame themselves for their parent’s illness.

“If these young children have some understanding of a parent's illness, they also might have a tendency to think their parents’ illness is due to something they've done or something they've said, or even something that they have thought. For example, they might think, “I’ve been a naughty boy, or girl, and that’s why mum is sick’.”

“Some children might worry more if you give them too much information, so it’s important to let your child know that your illness is not their fault. You can tell your child, ‘It’s absolutely nothing you've done or that you've thought which has led to mum/dad being sick. But, sometimes being unwell or having a particular illness is just something that happens’.”

Where to find support

When it comes to support for parents, Professor Sharman says the Macmillan organisation in the UK is a very good resource.

“Their website has a very good range of information and suggestions about how to speak to a child whose parent has cancer. It begins with a cartoon presentation which is non-confrontational. But it’s also very reassuring. It's something that a parent could watch with their child as a way to just start that conversation.”

If a parent has cancer, the Australian Cancer Council can also provide information and support, and can point you in the right direction for specialised assistance.