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Parental illness can have a profound impact on family relationships and children's behaviour. The amount and nature of communication between parents and children about the illness can play an important role, both positively and negatively, in mediating the outcomes. When children have a disability, families can be reluctant to communicate with them about family difficulties. They are often concerned about the impact that parental unavailability may have on their child's life. This paper reports on three families in which the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and one child in the family had a disability. The extent and specific characteristics of their communication about the maternal illness with their children, behavioural changes in the children, explanations of communication strategies and attributions of behavioural changes are described. Family coping strategies are examined with reference to Lazarus's process model of stress and coping and the use of either problem-focused or emotion-focused strategies. Implications for possible clinical interventions are proposed. In particular it is suggested that families be offered consultation about: what children might understand; ways in which to communicate effectively; and strategies for coping with the long-term implications of serious parental illness.

Original publication




Journal article


Child Care Health Dev

Publication Date





441 - 456


Adolescent, Anxiety, Autistic Disorder, Breast Neoplasms, Child, Child Behavior Disorders, Child Welfare, Communication, Down Syndrome, Family Health, Female, Humans, Learning Disabilities, Middle Aged, Mothers, Parent-Child Relations, Stress, Psychological