Strategies for Talking to Children About Cancer

Last updated: March 2020

As a newly diagnosed blood cancer patient, I was very concerned about telling my child about my illness. My first reaction was to keep the news from them or to delay telling them. I began to review available resources and discovered that research has demonstrated that children cope better when the parent is open and honest.

I know that my reaction to having cancer was overwhelming. I wanted to protect my child from this fear and anxiety and not disrupt her life.

What I learned about talking to children about cancer

Honesty is important

I learned that it is difficult to find the right way to tell a child and that different ages will react differently. Being honest is most important, as children are smart and often notice changes in routines and behaviors.

Secrecy can make things worse

One does not want to teach children that it is okay to keep secrets or to lie to each other. Honesty can build trust with your child. Sharing this difficult news can show your child that you trust and value him or her. A child can learn how to deal with complex feelings, how to bounce back and increase resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

Share the news yourself

Most of us would want our child to hear cancer news from us rather than overhearing it from someone else. This could make the child feel upset or confused, and they might worry in silence or be afraid to ask questions.

Children will cope in different ways

Children can learn to cope and express themselves by watching others such as their parents. How these role models manage this difficult situation lets the child know it is OK to feel upset.

Children need a chance to talk. Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Suggest the child keep a journal to write down their feelings and questions.

Young children may not be emotionally developed enough to express their real feelings using words. However, they may express feelings without using words, such as through play. Teenagers may be confused and uncertain about how to react. They may prefer to talk to their friends. Others may pretend that they are coping well when actually are struggling. It can be hard to navigate!

Some strategies for talking about cancerBe prepared and calmPrepare yourself as best you can. Practice what you will say and how you will respond to some common questions. Choose a quiet time and place, and try to remain as calm as possible. Find the right words based on ageUse the word cancer. Other words may be confusing. Use descriptions that children can understand based on age. There are children's books about cancer that can be helpful for your children and for preparing for this conversation. Explain how you are feeling. This can be done simply, such as by saying “Mom needs to rest.”Calm fears in advanceExplain that cancer is not their fault and is not contagious. Assure the child that they will be cared for during this time. Listen to what the child says. Share your own feelings when appropriate.Prepare yourself for a variety of reactionsThere may be different emotions from your child including crying, anger, sadness, or guilt. Physical reactions may include bed-wetting or changes in sleeping patterns. Try to keep the child’s daily routine as much as possible. Talk about your child’s activities and let them know it is still OK to have fun.Talking to a child about cancer is a difficult task. My best advice is to tell them what to expect using age-appropriate language, balance hope with reality, and continue to show your love and emotion. These suggestions helped me in dealing with this most difficult and stressful situation.1

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