Talking to children about cancer
A cancer diagnosis, while difficult for the patient, affects the whole family. Feelings of anger, fear, and helplessness are common. For children, it can be an especially confusing time. Developmentally, young children and even adolescents, may not be able to understand or cope with the same information as adults. However, while as parents we often try to shield our youngsters from anything that might make them sad or afraid, it is important to include them in the conversation in the right way.
Should I tell my children I have cancer?
If you, or your partner, are having treatment for cancer, it is likely that some parts of your normal home life routine will change. Perhaps treatment times will clash with school schedules or sports activities, and someone else may have to take your child in your place. There may be times when you need to rest and not be as active around the house. Because some cancer treatments take place over weeks or even months, children may start to notice that something is different. Even very young children are extremely observant. Denying anything has changed could lead to your child worrying and feeling anxious. While it is normal to want to protect your children, research shows that being honest can help youngsters cope better with a cancer diagnosis.1
Being honest can allow children to not hear about your diagnosis second-hand
Keeping secrets at the best of times can be stressful. Keeping a cancer diagnosis from your children can add to your level of anxiety at a time when it is important to practice good self-care. There might also be a concern that your children may find out from someone other than you. If you are relying on friends and family to be your support team and pitch in around the house and with activities, conversations can be overheard. While it may not be an easy conversation to have, it’s important that your child gets the right information from someone who knows them well and is prepared for the questions that they may have. Additionally, if your child finds out from someone else, they may feel obligated to keep the news from you, and have no support in dealing with the information, which again can lead to anxiety.
How to tell your child about a cancer diagnosis
If you choose to tell your child(ren) about your cancer diagnosis, here are some ways you can prepare:
- Plan what you’re going to say – While you don’t need a full script, having a clear idea of what you are going to say can make starting the conversation easier. Using simple, straightforward language is important, such as: “I have an illness called cancer. The doctors are doing the best they can to make me better. I’m having some treatment that might make me tired.”2
- Don’t tell your child how to feel – Starting the conversation with “I have some bad news” is telling your child how to feel about your diagnosis. Staying neutral and giving them the facts will let them know it’s ok to feel how they want. Don’t be surprised if very young children seem unbothered by the news, or if older children need time on their own to process the information.
- Choose a suitable time and place – Just before bedtime or at a crowded sports game isn’t the best time or place for this conversation. Select a quiet, private place where you and your child can talk openly without interruptions.
- Keep communication open – Your child may not feel like talking about the diagnosis right away. Let them know that’s ok, but you are there to talk if they ever have questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answers and tell them you will do your best to find out.
Consider the age of your children when talking about cancer
Choosing language carefully is key when talking to children of different ages about cancer. For very young children, this may be the first time they are hearing the word. Older children or adolescents may have prior knowledge. If you’re unsure about what language to use, seek some guidance from your healthcare professionals. There are also good resources online for children of all ages. Young children may understand an animated video better than an article or book. Do some research and ask your oncologist or healthcare team for some guidance.
How to support your child after the conversation
Letting your child’s school and close friends know that the conversation has happened may be helpful in making sure your child is coping ok when you’re not with them. Additionally, keeping their routines and activities the same lets them know that not everything has to change, and can help make them feel secure. Letting them know that it’s ok to talk to you or other people about how they are feeling will help prevent them feeling alone or in the dark. Encourage questions and discussions at home, but also make time for fun activities and family time that’s not focused on your cancer diagnosis.3