Sharing Bad News With Your Children–This Is Not the Dark Ages

Last week I received the following question: “I’m undergoing tests to determine if my cancer has recurred. I won’t have the results for a week or two. Is it best to tell my adult children that I’m worried, or keep the situation from them until I know for sure?”

This topic is a 3-fer for me. It intersects my specialties in family work, parent coaching and cancer counseling.

Many (maybe most) parents feel they’re protecting their children from unnecessary worry by keeping mum til the test results come in. If the news is bad, you can tell them; if it’s good, no one will be the wiser. Or, you can tell them retrospectively. This saves you pain, as well–a win/win.

But, of course, people wouldn’t need to pay me for advice if the obvious answer was always the best one. You probably already figured I was going to take the opposite side of the argument.

Healthy families are built on sharing and trust, not on secrecy and hiding.  Your adult children want to know what you’re going through. They want to share in your pain as well as your joy—be part of the process, in other words. Sharing your worry with them brings you closer and demonstrates that you feel their thoughts and prayers are important. Assuming good news, they can share in your relief.

My advice goes double if your children live in the house with you.  Overheard fragments of conversation can be more alarming to your children than a clear presentation of the facts. If you haven’t shared the basics with them, they may well get the message that they shouldn’t bring up the topic and thus have no way of clearing up their concerns.  Don’t kid yourself that secrets can be kept indefinitely from any household member.

Children in my practice often tell me of overheard conversations they’re sure their parents aren’t aware that they’re party to. When I suggest the children bring up the topic, they’re afraid, as they have been trained in keeping secrets by the very people whose secret they just uncovered.

Do you know how much this session is worth?! (image from freedigitalphotos.net)

The issue of overhearing applies to much younger children as well. What is the age at which a child should be informed of parental crises–say, sickness, job loss, impending divorce, bankruptcy, or public disasters such as school shootings?  The family systems experts provide an excellent rule of thumb: if your children are going to get the information elsewhere–either from overhearing the parents or from an outside source– tell yourself first. (Visit my earlier blog posts on secrecy.)

Why? First, it builds trust. Your child should know that if her parents seem to be fine, they are in fact fine. That their life is not a false illusion of security. Second, you get first-mover advantage. You can tell the story the way you want your kids to hear it, and you can answer questions and become aware of their fears. Instead of being shut out of each others’ lives during hard times, you will become closer and more supportive. You can dispel rumors and mis-information.

If your child is 3, she can hear in simple words that mommy and daddy are worrying about money or that mommy has been feeling sick lately.  Certainly, middle school children should be informed. Tell your story simply, don’t give too many details, and wait for questions. You may be surprised at what your child already knows or at the mis-information that she thinks she knows.

I have a personal as well as professional stake in this topic. A few months into my freshman year away at college, I received a phone call from my mother, which began, “I waited til I could walk to the phone before I called you.” Background: in the dark ages, hospital patients were charged per call that they made from their bedside phone. (Of course, an entire surgical bill wouldn’t amount to an hour in the ER today–dark ages, don’t forget). People didn’t throw around money in those days (one phone call home per week, on Sunday when rates went down), so they hobbled to the pay phone (dark ages).

Mom was telling me that she was now better, although she had chosen not to tell me she was having surgery in the first place. When I indignantly questioned the reasoning behind that hurtful choice, she answered (I bet you’ve already guessed it),” I didn’t want to upset you during finals.” I was plenty upset.

When we finished crying that one through, she agreed not to “protect” me that way again. I should have insisted she go by the same logic for my younger sister, who, at age 16, was kept from the final awesome secret of our mother’s cancer until the fantasy could be maintained no longer. The dark ages.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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