Talking to Children About Cancer

Talking to Children About Cancer

You may have been working hard to protect your children by not talking about cancer. However, many parents soon discover that their children know something has changed. Children notice when family members are upset and sometimes, they may even see their parents crying. They see and feel their parent’s stress and choose not to say anything because they do not want to make their parent feel worse. Despite your best efforts, medical appointments and treatment cause unavoidable disruptions in normal routines.  Children overhear family members talking about cancer.  They may be listening when telephone calls come in from doctors and nurses. They may also have learned about cancer from friends, television, the internet, or at school. As a first step, reach out to one of our Family Consultants to help you navigate this conversation.

In the absence of clear and accurate information, children may make up their own “story” about what is happening that may be scarier than what is really happening and hesitate to ask questions.  Children need to know that they can trust their parents to tell them what is happening, even if it is bad news. Avoiding these conversations can erode trust and feelings of safety.  How children react to a parent’s cancer depends on several different factors.  Younger children will respond differently than older children and adolescents. Each child’s unique personality and how the information is presented will also shape their reaction.  Remember too, that children do not have the same life experiences that adults have, and they will look to their parents for guidance on how to respond.

Younger children generally want to know how their daily life will change, for instance, who is going to take them to soccer practice if the parents aren’t available.  Additionally, younger children simply do not have the words to articulate questions or talk about their thoughts and feelings. Other children wonder if they did something to make their parent get cancer and if cancer is contagious. Some children ask if their parent is going to die and who will take care of them if that happens. Children also wonder about whether they too will get cancer. Sometimes children decide they need to be strong and do not talk about what is on their mind when they actually have worries about the parents’ cancer.  It’s not unusual to notice children acting differently and wonder if fighting with siblings and friends or changes in school performance is related to what’s going on at home. Sometimes parents also see their children becoming overly attentive and protective of them.

The following tips will help you talk with your child so you can help them cope with cancer.  For children who have a close relationship with another family member diagnosed with cancer, many of the same guidelines will apply. Cancer Lifeline staff have a wealth of experience working with families facing cancer. Contact one of our Family Consultants to help support his conversation. You don’t have to face this alone

Each child is unique You know your child better than anyone. Think about your child and what you think affects how they understand what’s shared about new stressful or potentially frightening topics. Take this into account as you think about what you will say, how you will say it and when you will have this conversation.

Draw out their story Some examples of ways to begin a discussion with your child include:

“I know I’ve talked to you about cancer, but I’d like to hear what you understand about it.”

“I know you hear a lot from family and friends about cancer.  Tell me what you know/understand about cancer.”

“I’m wondering what you know (or how you feel) about cancer.”

Listen Let go of trying to teach, comfort or reassure when talking with your child. As they are talking, simply listen quietly and attentively (direct eye contact, nodding); respond with short, listening sounds (‘Oh’, ‘Hmm’,‘Wow’, ‘I see”); name the feeling you think you are hearing your child talking about (‘I can see why you feel ‘or ‘that does sound ______’).

Encourage your child to continue talking with responses such as:

“Tell me more about that.”

“Help me to understand __________________.”

“Tell me how you came to know/understand that.”

“I’m listening…..”

Plan the Conversation Carefully Sometimes, the most helpful strategy is to carefully choose the time you will talk to your child. Choose a time when you feel less emotional yourself.  Before you talk with your child, take some time for yourself, to add to your own sense of calm. Below are some strategies parents can use:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Take a sip of water
  • Count slowly to 10 before responding to your child’s statement or question
  • Hold onto an object of comfort or symbolic significance for you
  • Ask another adult to be present to anchor you, emotionally

Schedule time to have fun as a family- Questions to consider

In what ways have you discovered you can stay connected as a family despite the cancer?

In what ways can you have fun together as a family despite the cancer?

How can you build enjoyable family time into your life right now?

Cancer Lifeline’s family programs and counseling services for adults, children, adolescents, and young adults can be accessed by contacting Pamela Krueger at pkrueger@cancerlifeline.org or calling 206-832-1271.