What You Need to Know When You Tell Your Kids about Cancer

December 3, 2015

One of the most complex aspects of living with cancer involves talking about cancer with others in our lives., especially when it comes to telling children about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. It can be hard to know what to say. What exactly should children be told? What will they understand? What is going through their heads when they hear “cancer” and what are they thinking about everything that comes with it?

It is normal to feel overwhelmed when first diagnosed or beginning treatment, and the last thing you want to deal with is having conversations you may be afraid to have. That said, children often sense that something is amiss, making these conversations inevitable. At the Cancer Support Community, our goal is to help facilitate the conversations by providing background and information to help you know what to say. CSC, in collaboration with other experts in the field, and with the input from focus groups of families affected by cancer, developed a booklet for those caring for children who have cancer in their home. This resource, Frankly Speaking About Cancer: What Do I Tell the Kids?, provides relevant information in a consolidated and user-friendly format. This resource is available throughout our Affiliate Network and on CSC’s website.

This booklet gives an overview of general levels of comprehension about cancer in children, common reactions, thoughts and strategies for discussing cancer with children, broken down by the age of the child. Many key tips for communicating are presented in this booklet and are also described below:

Before talking with your child, here are things to consider:

The age of your child. As the booklet suggests, “With younger children, it’s usually best to give short answers with basic facts. As children get older, you may be able to offer more information.”

Your child’s informational style. Is your child someone who finds comfort in having a great deal of information about what is going on around him/ her, or is less more?

Be aware of feelings that may come up as you are having this conversation (in your child as well as in yourself) and your expectations are for how they (and you) will react. Often children have less of an emotional reaction to hearing big news than adults would expect, at least initially. As for yourself, is your fear of upsetting your children is holding you back from having this conversation?

Questions you anticipate and how you’ll respond to them. As the booklet recommends “It can be helpful to prepare yourself for some questions that children commonly have about cancer. Whether or not these questions are being shared out loud, they are often on their minds. Think about possible answers so that you can be prepared if they do come up.”

Tips when communicating:

Use appropriate language. Experts recommend using the correct words (e.g. cancer, chemotherapy) to help your children have the language to think about what is happening and discuss it.

Communicate in an open, yet simplistic manner. As the booklet suggests, “With kids of any age, you can provide the facts and then allow them to lead the conversation based on the questions they might have. Better to keep it simple and allow them to ask follow-up questions or share thoughts than to overwhelm them with information they may not be ready for or able to understand.”

Be approachable. Let them know that they can come to you with questions, whenever there are things on their mind or new questions arise. Furthermore, keeping this open invitation communicates that you are there for them. As the booklet says, “Even when communication may feel strained and difficult, parents can help to create a comforting and secure environment just by remaining close by.”

Consider communication aides. Look through literature written for children about illness that may be appropriate. Many kids relate very well to how another child they read about is coping in a similar situation. This may also serve as a catalyst for families to discuss challenging topics as they relate to the family.

Other tips when children are in the home:

  • Try to maintain your family’s normal day-to-day life as much as possible, with as little interruption to school, activities, and household rules as is feasible.
  • Accept support and assistance from others during this time, as it works best for your family. For example, if your social network or religious community wants to deliver meals during treatment, this can be a tremendous help, and your children will see how much others care.
  • Ask for assistance that is helpful for you. People won’t know what your needs are unless you communicate them. If it would be helpful for your child to have a ride or a playdate on a particular day, let others know.
  • Seek outside support when needed, for you, your children, or your family. Some support references are provided within this booklet, and on the CSC website.  Additionally, resources can be obtained from your healthcare team and/ or medical facility as well as patient support organizations such as the CSC.

Do you have other tips about communicating with kids about cancer that you’d like to share with others, from personal experience?