Often there is an assumption that young children cannot understand about illness and should not be informed or given information about a loved one’s condition. While it is true that young children may not understand all the details of a serious illness, they do understand that someone is sick and can recognize that it is affecting their family. Children in this age group are often aware of the impact of tensions, emotions, and stress on their loved ones. Here are some common concerns:

Can I catch it?

Children may be concerned to spend time around the person that sick for fear that they may also become ill.

Did I cause it?

Sometimes young children believe that something they did or said caused the illness. Preschoolers and older toddlers typically believe that events occur because of them or their actions. Since young children often blur the boundary between imagination and reality, it can lead them to believe that they are somehow responsible for their loved one’s illness. These feelings may cause children to struggle with feelings of guilt.

Who will take care of me?

Children need reassurance that there will be people to take care of them, even if their loved one is seriously ill.

Ways to help:

  • Keep explanations simple, short, and honest by using words like cancer, surgery, stroke, chemotherapy, or heart disease when talking about the illness.
  • Recognize that children process information differently and may need to ask you the same questions over and over again. When you do not know the answer, it is okay to tell them that you do not know.
  • Reassure children that nothing they did or said caused their loved one’s illness.
  • If the illness is not contagious, explain to children that they cannot “catch” the illness. If the illness is contagious, help children understand what limitations or precautions they need to take before visiting. An example would be having to wear a mask.
  • When appropriate, offer children choices about visiting the hospital or being involved in the medical parts of your loved one’s treatment.
  • Provide opportunities for play. Many children express and work through their feelings while playing. Often, misconceptions are revealed through play. It is important for caregivers to watch and listen for issues or feelings that appear during play that caregivers can help address. Just like adults, children need a break from stress or other emotions they might be feeling. Play can be a wonderful opportunity for this type of break.
  • Maintain structure and routine as much as possible. If routines must change, and others (family, friends, co-workers) will be added into the schedule, discuss these changes with your children.
  • Be patient with your child’s temporary need to act younger. Many times when children are experiencing stress or a shift in routine, they go back to behaviors they had stopped. These might include having accidents, wanting a pacifier, wanting to sleep with caregivers, or wanting to be held instead of walking on their own.

What about infants?

Even the youngest children can sense when something is wrong within their family. Infants are sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers even if they do not understand what is happening in the way that older children or adults do. Babies need for trust and security can be disrupted when a caregiver is seriously ill or hospitalized due to changes or interruption in their daily routine.

Ways to support infants:

  • Maintain consistency as much as possible. Have other family members, friends, or day-care- workers help keep up the baby’s routine.
  • Find ways to keep the baby and caregiver as connected as possible to help with bonding and attachment.
    • Wrap the child in a shirt that smells like their caregiver.
    • Play a video of the caregiver talking or signing.
    • Place pictures of caregiver on the baby’s crib.
  • When medically possible, arrange for the baby to visit their caregiver in the hospital.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/01/2019.


  • Credits/Adaptations: How do you prepare a child for a parent’s serious illness, Cinda McDonald, MEd CCLS, Baylor Health. How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue. Accessed 11/18/2021.
  • Expert knowledge and experience of healthcare providers at Cleveland Clinic

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