How they might react

In the early days

Just like you, when children and young people first hear bad news their body will react in ways that are unfamiliar to them. When we experience shock for the first time is can feel very  frightening and overwhelming.What ever their age, children and young people need help to understand these feelings.

Shock is caused by the body’s survival mechanism reacting to a situation that it feels is dangerous. It gets us ready to fight or run away to deal with the danger- sometimes though when a situation feels overwhelming it can cause us to our reactions to freeze and we feel unable to move or think well.

Children and young people need reassurance and explanations about what is happening to them.

Typical reactions can be:

  • racing heart
  • rapid breathing
  • wobbly and heavy feeling legs
  • feeling faint and dizzy
  • diarrhea or stomach upsets
  • feeling distant and ‘not with it’
  • intense crying or anger
  • shaking
  • feeling very hot or very cold
  • finding it hard to speak or concentrate
  • racing thoughts

Many of these reactions can continue for some time after we have first heard bad news. Continued uncertainty about what is happening to the person who is ill or a long and distressing illness can cause these reactions to reoccur.


Living with anxiety during a serious illness

During the time that someone has a serious illness life can become very stressful and uncertain for everyone. The person may become more unwell, need treatment that causes side-effects cause them to become more unwell and they can look and behave differently from before the illness.

Often the doctors do not have clear answers  however hard they work and it is hard to be patient you wait for tests, treatments and results. You may all experience highs and lows in your mood and normal family life changes a great deal.

Children, young people and adults may all have high levels of anxiety about what will happen in the future. During this time it can be very helpful for them all to know what the symptoms of anxiety are and find ways to be less anxious, taking time to relax and time out to have fun. This is good for you too!

Common anxiety reactions

This diagram shows some common anxiety reactions. Children and you people can be very reassured by seeing this.


Reassuring children and young people about anxiety symptoms and talking with them about their worries, and involving school to work out ways to help them manage or reduce their anxiety can make a big difference.

There are several helpful books that can help too- see our Resources page

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