The purpose of this study was to assess the receptiveness of parents to information given about their child's life threatening illness. Three months after the child's diagnosis, an independent interviewer, using a structured questionnaire, interviewed the parents about what and how they had been told, and assessed the stage of parental coping reached at that time. All patients were treated at a regional paediatric oncology centre (RHSCE) and the interviews were conducted preferably in the family home (61%), or in a 'quiet' hospital room (39%). Twenty-five, unselected, consecutive patients with cancer and leukaemia diagnosed and treated at the RHSCE and their families were recruited into the study (1988-1989). One child died during the first three months and one single parent family refused co-operation. Eighteen of the 23 interviews conducted were with both parents, and five were with single parents (all maternal). All 23 sets of parents admitted deep shock and devastation on hearing the initial diagnosis, with 12 sets feeling that they had taken in little or none of the information given. A long interview was conducted a few days after the initial talk with the consultant. The parents of four children (17%) denied that the long interview had occurred whilst 10/19 who remembered it expressed specific lack of understanding of some or all details. All families remembered a large number (10-20) of subsequent talks with a wide range of staff, but 14/23 felt that some of the information was still confusing or conflicting, and 9/14 did not want to ask for further clarification, principally because they did not want to hear more bad news. The majority felt the child understood little of what was going on. At the study interview, most parents were assessed as still being very anxious about their child's illness, whilst two couples, one single mother and one father, were content with what and how they had been told about their child's illness and were in a state of emotional homeostasis. It is concluded that communication of bad news is a two-way process requiring skilled medical staff, but also a receptive audience. The emotional state of the parent determines his or her ability to hear and comprehend the information given. The results imply that repetition and clarification at consultation interviews is required until parents are emotionally able to hear, accept and comprehend complex news. Written material, taped interviews and simple videos can assist in this process.