Breaking bad news: what parents would like you to know

Arch Dis Child. 2021 Mar;106(3):276-281. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2019-318398. Epub 2020 Oct 30.


Objective: Breaking bad news about life-threatening and possibly terminal conditions is a crucial part of paediatric care for children in this situation. Little is known about how the parents of children with life-threatening conditions experience communication of bad news. The objective of this study is to analyse parents' experiences (barriers and facilitators) of communication of bad news.

Design: A qualitative study consisting of a constant comparative analysis of in-depth interviews conducted with parents.

Setting: The Netherlands.

Participants: Sixty-four parents-bereaved and non-bereaved-of 44 children (aged 1-12 years, 61% deceased) with a life-threatening condition.

Interventions: None.

Results: Based on parents' experiences, the following 10 barriers to the communication of bad news were identified: (1) a lack of (timely) communication, (2) physicians' failure to ask parents for input, (3) parents feel unprepared during and after the conversation, (4) a lack of clarity about future treatment, (5) physicians' failure to voice uncertainties, (6) physicians' failure to schedule follow-up conversations, (7) presence of too many or unknown healthcare professionals, (8) parental concerns in breaking bad news to children, (9) managing indications of bad news in non-conversational contexts, and (10) parents' misunderstanding of medical terminology.

Conclusions: This study shows healthcare professionals how parents experience barriers in bad news conversations. This mainly concerns practical aspects of communication. The results provide practical pointers on how the communication of bad news can be improved to better suit the needs of parents. From the parents' perspective, the timing of conversations in which they were informed that their child might not survive was far too late. Sometimes, no such conversations ever took place.

Keywords: comm child health; palliative care; patient perspective; qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bereavement
  • Brief, Resolved, Unexplained Event / mortality
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Interviews as Topic / methods
  • Male
  • Netherlands / epidemiology
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Pediatrics / ethics*
  • Pediatrics / statistics & numerical data
  • Perception
  • Physician-Patient Relations / ethics*
  • Physicians / ethics
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data
  • Qualitative Research
  • Terminally Ill / statistics & numerical data
  • Truth Disclosure / ethics*
  • Uncertainty