Explaining dementia to children and young people

Finding out that someone close to you has dementia, and then coping with it from day to day, can be distressing for everyone involved. It can be particularly challenging explaining things to children and young people. This factsheet explains how children and young people can be affected when someone close to them has dementia. It also suggests how parents can talk to their children about the condition and ways to help them feel secure and involved.

Dementia can create some very challenging situations for families and social groups, and it can be hard to know how much to explain to children and young people. It is natural to want to protect children from difficult or confusing situations, but it is important to explain what is going on. There are a number of reasons for this.

  • Children and young people are often aware of difficult atmospheres and tensions even when they haven’t been told the facts, so it can be reassuring for them to understand what the problem is.
  • Although the news may be distressing, children and young people may find it a relief to know that the person’s behaviour is part of their dementia and is not directed at them.
  • It can be more upsetting for the child or young person to find out later than to cope with the reality of what is happening. If a child is not told, they may find it difficult later to trust what someone close to them says.
  • Seeing how people around them cope with difficult situations helps young people learn valuable skills about dealing with tough and distressing situations, and being able to manage painful emotions.
It is important to try to be as honest as you can, by offering clear explanations and plenty of reassurance. Adapt what you say and how you say it to the age and level of understanding of the child or young person.

Also try to get a sense for how much detail they can cope with, and tailor your discussion accordingly. Make sure they feel they can ask questions and that they can share the feelings that the people around them might be experiencing.