7 Tips for Telling Your Kids That You Have Cancer.  Mommy Standard Time
How to prepare for a heart-breaking conversation with your kids.  Mommy Standard Time
7 Tips for Giving Your Kids Horrible News.  Mommy Standard Time

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7 Tips for Giving Your Kids Horrible News.  Mommy Standard Time

A little over two years ago, on the phone with my OB/GYN, I heard the three words that no one ever wants to hear:

It is cancer.

After getting over the initial numbing shock, my mind immediately turned to what any mom would think in my situation:

How do we tell the kids?

Having gone through the experience of talking to our kids about cancer, I wanted to share some tips with you that can hopefully help you prepare to give your child horrible news (even if your news has nothing to do with cancer.)


No matter what earth-shattering news you’re trying to share with your kids, chances are you have been in contact with an expert on your particular concern.

If you have cancer, you’ve been talking with oncologists and surgeons.

If you’re getting a divorce, you’ve probably been talking with a counselor of some kind.

If you need to put your family’s pet to sleep, you have probably met with a veterinarian.

No matter WHAT your horrible news may be, there are experts who have helped MANY parents in your situation talk with their children. Ask them for advice!

There are also websites and books dedicated to talking to children about hard things.

The book pictured above was given to me by my surgeon. If you would like to find it on Amazon, just follow this link.

When I was diagnosed, I was given a list of reputable websites to consult when trying to figure out how to talk to kids about my diagnosis. It was on one of these websites that I found a lot of good tips for sharing the bad news about cancer with our kids. You could have similar luck by consulting experts on your particular concern.

I am not an expert, so I wanted to be sure to lead with the tip above. The rest of this list is from my own experience and should not be construed as professional advice. I’m just a mom trying to help other parents by sharing my experience.


Even more difficult than figuring out HOW to talk to our kids about cancer was WHEN to give them the news.

Everyone’s situation is different.

We decided to talk to our kids about it when enough people OUTSIDE of our family had heard about it that we didn’t want to risk our kids finding out about it through the grapevine.

We also felt like it was time to tell the kids when I started having tons of appointments in preparation for my mastectomy. Kids can sense when something is “off,” and it is better to get it out in the open rather than let their imaginations take over.

In regards to timing, you also want to consider when to have the actual conversation.

You definitely don’t want your conversation to be rushed by squeezing it into a busy evening schedule. However, you also want to give your kids a sense of normalcy shortly after this discussion.

In our case, we decided to talk to our kids early on a Sunday evening. Our Sundays are typically spent together as a family anyway, so we didn’t have to feel rushed. The kids had time to process the news before getting right back into their daily schedule or before expecting them to go to bed. However, they had school and other activities the following day to help send the message that, in many ways, life would still go on as normal even after my diagnosis.

There wasn’t a chance for stewing, and I think that was really important.


Have tissues ready when talking to kids about cancer

It is a good idea to have things on hand so that you don’t have to interrupt the flow of your discussion to run and grab something. In our case, we had the following ready to go:

  • Tissue
  • Marker and paper (for a kid-friendly explanation/drawing of cancer)
  • Notepad (for writing down the kids’ questions that we couldn’t answer right then)
  • Phone/Computer (for looking up answers to questions that we COULD answer)
  • Notes with bullet points of what we wanted to discuss

You will also want to prepare for this conversation by considering what your kids already know in relation to what you’re about to tell them. This will probably be where their mind goes when you use words like “cancer,” “divorce,” or “death.”

In the year or so leading up to my own diagnosis, my kids had become interested in how our relatives had died. I had told them “cancer” many times when they asked me about their great-grandparents, our aunts and uncles, and so on.

Cancer had claimed the lives of MANY of our relatives. As a result, cancer meant death in the minds of my children. I know this is where their minds would go as soon as I told them that I had cancer.

So, in my preparations, I made sure to think about how I would address this with them during our conversation. At this point, I didn’t have the full pathology of my tumor and we didn’t know if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.

I was scared.

But I knew that my kids would be 1,000% more scared, so I made sure that our preparations took that into consideration. We were prepared to talk with them about how my cancer was different from the cancers experienced by our relatives. We were also prepared with the names of relatives and friends who HAD survived cancer.

Along those same lines, another important point of preparation is to deal with your own emotions and processing prior to this difficult conversation. I’m not saying that you need to hide your own emotions from your kids, but keep in mind that you will set the tone.

Overwhelmed by breast cancer information
Learning details about my diagnosis was overwhelming! I tried my best to process these emotions BEFORE talking with our kids.

Right before we sat the kids down, I reminded myself: “This conversation is about THEIR emotions. Not yours.”

I didn’t want my kids’ immediate thought to be that I was dying, because they wouldn’t hear anything else we said. If I had told them that “Mommy has cancer” while sobbing uncontrollably, that would have DEFINITELY been the case.

Instead, I kept my emotions in check and we lovingly told them the facts. They searched my face for a cue about how to react to the news. By keeping my emotions under control, I was able to steer the conversation to the facts of my diagnosis and I feel that this helped the kids process their own feelings rather than mirroring mine. It also kept the tone of our conversation open to questions and discussion rather than a sobbing session. Which leads to my next point…


Encourage questions when giving bad news to your kids

Depending on the age of your children, you might field a lot of questions, or you might hear crickets when you ask your kids if they have any questions.

After going through the nitty gritty of what we knew about my cancer, I asked my then-6 and 9 year-olds if they had any questions.

Their hands shot up as if they were at school.

What I remember from their questions is that they were very concrete and they related to how my diagnosis would impact their lives. We tried our best to reassure them of the ways their life would be the same and their needs would be taken care of, but they still had questions.

“Will you still be able to take us to school?”

“Will you be able to get out of bed in the morning?”

“Will you be bald when it’s time for my dance recital?”

You will probably experience something similar. The kids are trying to frame this news into what they know. Encourage questions like these, even if you don’t know the answers!

That is what was so helpful about the notepad. We wrote down their questions that we couldn’t answer right then. This sent our kids the message that we viewed their questions as important and that we wanted to answer them as much as they wanted an answer. We wanted them to know that they could trust us with their questions. Nothing was off limits.

Because the heart of the matter is that this conversation is not a “one and done” thing. You are opening the gate of a difficult journey that you will be enduring as a family. Maintaining open and honest communication is very important and how you field their questions from the beginning will set the tone for future conversations.

Related Article: I Got Cancer for Christmas


It is tempting to want to have your children keep your news under wraps, especially if it is something that could cause drama in your family’s life as people gradually hear the news.

I felt that it was unfair to expect this of my kids. That is why we chose not to share the news of my cancer with our kids until we were ready for the general population to know about it.

It would have been unfair for me to expect my children to keep secrets in addition to processing our horrible news. I wanted my children to feel free to process the news of my diagnosis in whatever way they felt comfortable. That might mean talking to their friends, their teachers, or their church leaders.

Reminding our kids that this wasn’t a secret helped them feel more comfortable in talking about our news, whenever and however they needed.


So on that note, it is important to let your children’s teachers know about the conversation that you just had with your kids.

As a teacher, I have had MANY experiences with children coming to school and dropping bombs of news with no other context.

“I am switching schools next week.”

“My daddy lost his job.”

“My mom doesn’t live in our house anymore.”

It was hard for us, as school staff, to reassure the child or help him process this news because we had no idea if it was true, what the details were, etc. So we just let the statements hang there. We didn’t pry.

Because many people feel like it’s not the school staff’s business to know details about their family.

In many cases, that’s true.

HOWEVER….whatever big news you share with your kids, this will be weighing on their minds during the many hours they are away from you at school. They might want to talk about it. If that’s the case, wouldn’t you want your child’s teacher to lend a reassuring and understanding ear during this difficult time? I know I did!

Circle the dang wagons!

So on that Sunday night over two years ago, after having our conversation with our kids, I sat down and wrote an email to our kids’ teachers and principal outlining our conversation. I told them, in bullet points, exactly what we had told our kids. I also told them things that we DIDN’T know at that point.

I wanted the school staff to know exactly what the kids had heard from us in case our kids decided to talk about it at school. The teachers would be able to decipher what was truth and what was the kids’ interpretations of the news that they were still obviously processing. In this way, they were prepared to respond to our kids if the staff heard them say “My mom is dying.“ or “My mom is losing her hair. “

The staff would know that they could say things like “Yes, your mom is going to lose her hair but it will grow back.”

I also requested that if our children asked them questions that they could not answer based on the information I had provided, that they assist the kids in writing those questions down to bring home.

The teachers were very appreciative of this information and they were prepared to support our children as they processed the news at their own pace.


Determining when to end a difficult conversation can be almost as tricky as opening the discussion. No matter when you choose to end the conversation, I would suggest finishing up in a way that brings you closer together as a family. Whether it is a prayer, a group hug, or a walk in nature, do something that will draw you together as a family.

One of the sweetest moments I have ever had as a mother came in the few moments after our heart-breaking conversation, when Mini-Me sweetly and faithfully led our family prayer. It is a moment that brought us closer together as a family and I will remember it forever.

This conversation will be one your children will probably remember for the rest of their lives. I hope that these tips will help your difficult discussion go a little more smoothly, so that the main feeling your children remember will be love and strength, rather than sadness and fear.

I wish your family the very best during this difficult time.

Head over to {this page} if you would like to read my cancer story from the beginning, or to read my other articles that I’ve written to help others facing cancer.