What to Consider When Explaining Terminal Illness to Kids

What to Consider When Explaining Terminal Illness to Kids

Children are often more familiar with illness than we think, whether they’ve come to understand it through media, friends, or their pets. Still, applying the notion of terminal illness to a loved one is a demanding task for kids who haven’t experienced it before. Here’s what to consider when explaining terminal illness to kids so that they understand how to move forward in a healthy way.


The first and perhaps most important thing to consider is the timeliness of your discussion. Children pick up on how you feel and recognize any pain or worry, but they aren’t psychic. They won’t understand what’s bothering you until you explain it. If you’re wondering about the best time to start this discussion, sooner is often better than later.

That said, hearing the news that a loved one is terminally ill is a traumatic event for many, so how you approach the subject matters. Consider timing the discussion in a way that gives your child time to process the news and gives them the opportunity to ask questions.


Children can surprise you with just how much they understand. However, children sometimes invent their own answers and misconceptions when processing new information. An effective way to check your child’s comprehension is to simply ask what they know. Referencing known examples of a pet or character getting sick and passing away can help ground your child’s expectations and develop understanding. Remember to gently dispel any misconceptions and prepare to answer a wide range of questions.


Each parent can decide how much information they want to communicate to their child. Still, it’s always best to stay honest about what’s going on when possible. When a loved one has a terminal illness, you should express how you feel honestly. Seeing how an adult deals with anticipatory grief and pain can help a child validate their own feelings.

It’s also vital to explain that those with terminal illnesses likely won’t recover. Speaking honestly about your views on loss and what to expect when someone passes are key parts of preparing your child for the loss of a loved one.

These three things to consider when explaining terminal illness to kids help you set a foundation for this difficult conversation. Though painful, it’s the responsibility of parents and loved ones to guide children through life and give them the tools necessary to understand, acknowledge, and recover from harsh realities.