Parents' and children's communication about genetic risk: a qualitative study, learning from families' experiences

Eur J Hum Genet. 2011 Jun;19(6):640-6. doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2010.258. Epub 2011 Feb 16.


Little is known about how parents explain to their children their risk of inheriting a gene that may cause disease in the child or in the child's future progeny. This study explored how genetic risk information is shared between family members and the factors affecting it, to ascertain the implications for children, young people and their parents to inform future service development and provision. A volunteer group of parents, children (8-11 years) and young people (12+ years) in families affected by or at risk of one of six inherited genetic conditions was interviewed. The semi-structured interviews explored the roles of family members, the language used and the self-reported psychological outcomes in a discussion on genetic risk information. The findings were analysed using grounded theory. A total of 33 families participated, which included 79 individuals. Parents often found discussing genetic risk information very difficult and emotionally painful. Discussions were not usually planned and often a major event prompted parents to finally explain genetic risks to their children; however, children usually preferred to learn about the genetic condition gradually throughout childhood. Parents identified a number of challenges they faced related to talking to children, and many thought health professionals should provide more advice to assist them in providing developmentally appropriate information. We therefore conclude that greater emphasis is required in supporting parents and children in discussing genetic risk information throughout their child's development. Open communication about genetic risks throughout childhood seemed to help children and parents cope better and come to terms with the implications of the genetic condition.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Communication
  • Communication Barriers
  • Emotions
  • Family / psychology*
  • Family Health
  • Family Planning Services
  • Female
  • Genetic Diseases, Inborn / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Incidental Findings
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Risk
  • Surveys and Questionnaires