Most adults have an instinctive desire to protect children, both physically and emotionally. Their wish to guard against harm leads them to safeguard their environment, and do what they can to clear dangers and obstacles from their lives. Unfortunately, there are some things that simply can’t be avoided, regardless of a parent’s vigilance.

As death is a part of life, it stands to reason that sooner or later, children will have to face the impending death of a loved one. Talking to kids about terminal illness is hard, as being truthful about what it means is certain to bring pain to children. However, just like some of the other difficult parenting tasks (e.g. sleep training or leaving a child with a babysitter for the first time) it is a necessary part of raising healthy and independent future adults. Here are some tips for talking about terminal illness with children.

Normalize It

Death and dying are a natural part of life, and it is helpful to make children aware of that concept from an early age. Certainly, there is no shortage of children’s books and movies that reference death in some way or another. Having a conversation about it when it pertains to a fictional character (Bambi’s mother, for example) is a great way to talk about it before it becomes personal. When it does become personal for them, having that context that as painful as it is, it is normal, will help them make sense of it.

Tell them what they need to know

The amount of detail kids can absorb will vary by age and developmental level, but it is important to give children the information they need to understand what’s happening with their loved one. Research has indicated that children who have dealt with a parent with a terminal illness felt they were not given all of the information they needed, and that rather than protect them from stress, this created more anxiety for them.

Be honest

Be honest about what is likely to happen, and don’t be afraid to answer their questions with total honesty, even if that means saying “I don’t know.” Children need to be able to trust not only the information they are given, but the person giving it.