3 Key Steps to Telling Your Child You Have Cancer
There is no one “right” way to talk about cancer with your children. How you tell your child doesn’t come with a playbook. There are important steps you can take before and during the talk to help your child share and cope with any fears he or she may experience.
Starting a discussion with your child about your diagnosis involves many challenging variables, including:
- What your specific diagnosis and prognosis are
- How long your prescribed treatment may take and how difficult it may become
- Your child’s age and relative maturity
According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), preparing yourself to talk with your child is a critical first step. The idea is that, if you yourself aren’t ready to talk, it may be difficult to ensure you deliver the message; address fears, questions and concerns; and be able to be supportive and understanding of your child’s reaction.
Step 1—Make sure you are ready
- First, find the right words. Write an outline of talking points, and a glossary of terms you may need to explain. Talk with your doctor. He or she can help you find the right words to accurately describe your diagnosis, your prognosis, or any other pertinent information you may need or want to share. Once you have your “script,” practice talking with your spouse, or a close family member or friend
- For younger children, you may be tempted to oversimplify your language in an effort to protect their feelings. Using vague or euphemistic words are actually more confusing to your child, according to the Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center
- Next, pick the right time and place. In Talking to Children and Teenagers when an Adult Has Cancer, it’s recommended that you “[c]hoose a time and a place when your children are most likely to listen and feel at ease, and where you won’t be interrupted.” Telling your child you have cancer as you lie in a hospital bed is definitely not the right place or time. Take away as many distractions as possible -- make sure the initial discussion takes place between just you and your child, and your spouse or a close family member if you think that will help. And though it may seem obvious now, don’t pick a time that may make things even more difficult for your child after you talk, such as the day before a big test, or right before a school dance or basketball game
- Be yourself. While it's important to have talking points ready to deliver this challenging news, make sure you are talking to your child from a place of love and understanding. There is a lot of information to cover when you tell your child that you have cancer, but it can be helpful for your child to see that you are still the same person, communicating with them as you normally would
You’ve found the talking points and the words you may need to go over carefully. You’ve picked the right place, the right time, and now you are ready for the hardest part—sitting down to talk.
Step 2—It’s time to tell your child you have cancer
- This is difficult, confusing news. Strong emotions, feelings of confusion, and other responses like yelling or crying. These are to be expected, and are an important part of telling your children you have cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, "Parents can tell their kids that there will be times when they will need to cry, because that can help them feel better. Parents can assure them that at some point they won’t need to cry about the situation, but it’s OK to express all of their feelings. Everyone deals with problems in a different way, and it’s fine to feel angry or sad as long as you don’t use these feelings to hurt others.”
- Refer to the talking points and glossary you have prepared. Again, it’s important to balance using the right terms (such as cancer, chemotherapy) with more “kid-friendly” explanations (for example, saying, “chemotherapy is a way to treat my illness using special medicines”). Avoid sugar-coating aspects of your disease. For younger children, NCCN recommends the use of dolls or other visual aids to help explain what cancer is, and how it affects your body. Visual aids can help explain and reinforce difficult words or concepts
- Questions, concerns and fear of the unknown will be a big part of the discussion—for both of you! As the conversation develops, watch your child closely. Try to anticipate if things are getting too much for the first talk. Again, you can and should make this a series of talks. Provide answers to questions when you can, and agree to research ones you don’t have an answer for together
- From start to finish, project hope, confidence, love, understanding, sympathy and a strong grasp of the reality of your situation. You should anticipate that your child will be upset by the news, but their reactions also might surprise you. Do your best to treat them with compassion, and with the knowledge that what you have shared can be very hard for children, especially younger children, to grasp
Step 3—Create a network of support and care for your child
- For your child, that network may include his or her best friend, teachers, a school principal or nurse, a primary care doctor, or a coach. These people play a significant role in your child’s life, and may need to be made aware of your illness too, so they can properly and thoughtfully support your child
- Pay close attention to your child’s mood and behavior after you have shared your story. If your child seems stressed or sad, it may be time to consult a mental health professional. Start by talking to your child’s teachers, coaches, friends—anyone who sees them at times when you can’t. Your child’s primary care doctor can help you find counseling solutions and help monitor his or her overall physical and mental health. The website Tellingkidsaboutcancer.com recommends continual follow-up with your child—ask questions, stay connected, make time to continue talking, and encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings, fears and frustrations both with you and with other important people in his or her life
Your children are such a big part of why you will fight cancer every step of the way. Helping them understand your condition and how it's affecting you can help ease some of their stress while you go through this difficult time.
The following resources can provide you with information and tips on how to tell your children you have cancer, and how to help them once you have that talk:
- How Should Children Be Told That a Parent Has Cancer? (American Cancer Society)
- Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer (CancerCare)
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