What children understand about cancer?

Children’s understanding and beliefs concerning cancer are dependent on age, previous experience with cancer or illness, and their own cultural background. Below is a general idea of what children tend to understand and believe dependent on their age.

Children aged 4–6 years

  • Have a basic level of understanding about illness
  • May believe that they have caused the cancer (e.g. by being naughty or thinking bad thoughts about the parent). This is called magical thinking.
  • Are quite egocentric, meaning they find it difficult to empathise with other people.
  • May think cancer is contagious.

Children ages 7–11 years

  • Are able to understand more complex explanations of cancer, and understand basic information about cancer cells.
  • May feel responsible for causing the cancer because of bad behaviour.
  • Start to understand that people, including parents, can die.
  • Older children tend to understand the finality of death and its impact.