How to Talk to Your Kids About Cancer

September 26, 2019

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As a parent, it’s natural to want to shelter your children from some of life’s more cruel realities. For obvious reasons, illnesses top the list of difficult subjects that we tend to circumvent. If you or someone else in your family has been diagnosed with cancer, however, you will eventually have to decide how you will handle this delicate and difficult conversation. 

Instinctively, you may think it’s best to keep the news of a cancer diagnosis from your kids. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by fear, and to want to protect your children from those same unpleasant emotions. It’s also normal to worry about how the news will affect your child’s daily life — their schoolwork, friendships — and how much anxiety it will cause them.  

Despite all of these fears, experts agree that a straightforward and honest discussion will actually help your child in dealing with your diagnosis. It’s also important not to discount how perceptive children are, even at young ages, and to acknowledge that your child will likely know that something is going on whether or not you talk to them directly about the situation. 

As difficult as it may be, it’s important to allow your children to be part of the conversation and to ensure that they have the support they need to cope with the news. While there is no right or wrong way to handle it, it is important to give some thought to how and when you will approach this very important conversation. 

Keep the conversation age appropriate

Age is obviously an important consideration when talking to children about a cancer diagnosis. The American Cancer Society advises structuring the conversation to an age-appropriate level, which includes avoiding too many details for younger children, and providing more details for older children and teens. While age certainly matters, it’s also important to trust your instincts in terms of what your child can and can’t handle. After all, you know them and their emotional maturity levels and ability to cope better than anyone else. 

The ACS advises the following details are generally appropriate for children of various ages:

  • The name of the cancer and the part or parts of the body affected
  • How the cancer will be treated
  • How their own lives will be affected by your diagnosis and treatment

Because children thrive on routine, that last bullet is one of the most important aspects when talking to your child about cancer. Giving them a sense of security about how their daily lives will be impacted and what they can expect to change — and to stay the same — can be reassuring for children. 

Finding the ‘right’ time and place

Deciding when and where to tell a child about your diagnosis will also impact how he or she digests the news. It’s best to find a quiet time and a private place where you can talk uninterrupted. Never talk to a child while you are emotionally elevated or upset. Children look to you as an emotional barometer, and the more calm you are while talking with them, the less fearful they will be about your diagnosis. 

If you have more than one child, decide whether to talk to them together, or to tell each of them separately. Because every child is different, each is likely to handle the news in his or her own unique way. Consider how you can talk to each child in a manner best suited to his or her personality and sensibilities.  

Talking about the details

Ultimately, you know your child best, and you know how openly you can talk to them and what level of detail they’ll need and can handle. Strike a balance between having an open discussion and not giving too many details that might scare or worry them. If your child is particularly curious, focus on the treatment plan rather than the details of the illness itself. Doing so can help your child to focus on the positive — your plan to get well — instead of the negative.

For a smaller child, you can say something along the lines of, “Mommy is sick but the doctors have come up with a really awesome plan to help me get well as soon as possible.”

Dealing with the tough questions

No matter how you structure the conversation, it’s always best to be ready for some tough questions. Children can be painfully direct, so be prepared to hear some version of, “Are you going to die?”

How you handle this question, and this topic at large, is entirely up to you but it is best to respond in a way that is honest without being alarming. For example, “Yes, people do die from cancer, but grandma’s doctors are giving her the best treatment so she has a great chance of living for a long time.”

While informing family can be one of the most difficult parts of a cancer diagnosis, honesty typically is the best policy. Your child may feel betrayed or hurt if they discover you’ve kept something that is this important from them, or worse, if they hear it from someone else. Talking to them openly and directly shows that you trust them and that you care about the impact your illness will have on them.  

Once you’ve told your kids about your diagnosis, it’s important that the conversation doesn’t end here. Avoiding the subject breeds the perception that your illness is too scary to talk about. Your children should feel confident that they can come to you (and others in their family support system) with any questions, concerns and fears. Keep an open dialogue about your illness, your treatments, and the details of how their own lives are being impacted. 

Most importantly, set aside time to spend with your children that isn’t focused on cancer. Practicing mindfulness, for example, can have many positive mental health benefits for you and your children, and can help shift your mindset to the more positive aspects of your life and health.

 

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