How to talk to your child about cancer

July 20, 2016 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

It is normal to feel a sense of worry when you think about talking to your kids about cancer. Many parents worry their children will not understand or will have a hard time coping with the news. It may be helpful for you to plan what you want to say in advance by thinking about your goals for the conversation.

What children need to know depends on their age. The American Cancer Society says young children, up to 8 years old, will not need a lot of detailed information, while older children, between 8 to 12 years, will need to know more. Use age-appropriate language to discuss cancer with your children.

Keep in mind, kids are great at sensing when something is wrong — even if you think they don’t know. Children often pick up on cues from their parent’s body language and even from conversations they overhear. It is better for you to be open and honest with your child than for them to come to their own interpretations about what they think is going on.

Here are some tips for communicating with your children about cancer:

  • Bring in support. Consider asking another close family member or friend to be with you during the conversation. They can help answer questions and provide support to both you and your children.
  • Set the tone. You are your child’s role model and they will follow your lead. Speak in a calm and reassuring voice. When you are calm and composed, it will show your children that you are still in charge and they will be less scared.
  • Use simple language and repeat the information. Give basic information and be prepared for difficult questions. It is okay to say, “I don’t know,” but that you’ll try to find the answer. Most importantly, reassure them that you are going to work through cancer together, as a family.
  • Be open and honest with your feelings. This will build trust with your child and help them feel more safe and secure. You can admit that it’s an upsetting time but that you and are doing everything you can to get well.
  • Use clear information about cancer. Discuss the type of cancer, and show or tell your children where the cancer is on the body. This will help clear up any confusion and help them feel more in control of the situation.
  • Talk about what they can expect. Explain how the cancer will be treated, and any type of physical changes you may go through. Talk about how their own lives will be affected. Reassure them that their routine will be kept as consistent as possible and they will still be taken care of.
  • Clear up misconceptions. Children will often wonder if they did anything to cause cancer. Many times, they believe cancer can be caught like a cold. Explain that cancer is not contagious and they did not do anything to cause it.
  • Express hope for the future. Try to remain positive throughout the conversation. Your doctors are doing everything they can to make you well again, and so are you. As technology and science continues to advance, cancer treatments do too.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings. Recap what you have told them and ask them how they feel. Let your children know that their feelings are normal and it’s good to talk about them. Encourage them to draw pictures, keep a journal or share feelings with a friend.

Remember, there is no perfect way to have this conversation, so do your best. Be prepared to have brief, frequent conversations about the topic and keep all lines of communication open. Let your children know that you will be there to answer any questions they may have.

Finally, tell your children how much you love them and let them know how they can help. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network says some families are able to transform the cancer experience into a positive journey and develop deeper connections with one another. Reassure your children that your family will work together to help one another through this difficult time. 

What are ways you’ve seen families cope? Tell us in the below comments.

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