Helping Children Understand
"They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
- Carl W. Buechner
“How will I tell my children?” may be a parent’s first thought upon learning he or she has cancer. While some parents may be tempted to put off a difficult discussion, children can sense that something is wrong, and effective communication between parents and children can decrease the level of anxiety experienced by children.
When informing a child of a parent’s diagnosis of cancer, it is best to speak to the child one-on-one so the child feels free to express emotions and ask questions. It is important to be honest and precise when sharing information. Do not hesitate to use the word “cancer,” as it is important that the child hears the diagnosis directly from you. Be sure to tailor the information to your child’s level of development (information to assist you is listed below). Of primary importance is making sure children do not feel as if they caused the cancer. Since children will become aware of physical symptoms such as nausea, hair loss and fatigue, it will be helpful to explain that the symptoms are due to treatment which is designed to make the parent better. It may be helpful to inform school personnel proactively so they can provide support and inform you if your child is having difficulties at school. For instance, young children often manifest anxiety or depression somatically, such as stomachaches or headaches, so it may be helpful to communicate with the school nurse. Older children living away from home should be consulted regarding their preferred method of communicating cancer-related information.
Above all, it is important to understand and acknowledge that children may express both positive and negative emotions, and to help children understand that their emotions may change over time. Although it is natural to worry about how a child will fare while or after a parent is in treatment for cancer, it may be reassuring to know that children of cancer patients are not at a higher risk than their peers of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as depression and anxiety.
Learning that your cancer has recurred or is in an advanced stage can be sad and overwhelming for you and your family. You may not want to tell your children because you want to protect them. Keeping this information secret will be difficult; children will sense that something is wrong and imagine the worst.
Ask your children what they remember about your cancer diagnosis and previous treatment. Make sure to correct any misinformation they have and add to what they were told. Providing every detail is not as important as letting your children know you can be trusted to let them know what's happening. Explain that the cancer has now come back or has advanced and will need to be treated again with stronger medicines or other treatments. Knowing what is happening will help children feel included and less helpless.
- "Communicating with Children about Metastatic Breast Cancer," Joan F. Hermann, LSW (Audio)
- “Explaining Cancer to Kids Requires Honesty,” WSCH-TV (Video)
- “Explaining Cancer to Young Children,” Peggy Rios, PhD
- "Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer: Talking to My Kids," Laurie Kingston
- "Parents With Cancer: Millions of Patients Juggle Chemotherapy and Childrearing," Courtney Hutchison & Jane E. Allen
Websites for Parents
- Advice for Parents with Cancer
- Children’s Treehouse Foundation
- Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
- Helping Children and Youth Cope with Cancer
- Helping Teenagers When a Parent Has Cancer
- Helping Young Children Cope with Parental Cancer: Interactive Tools & Resource
- Providing a Guardian for Your Children
- Someone I Love is Sick: Helping Very Young Children Cope with Cancer in the Family
- Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer
- Talking with Your Children about Your Diagnosis and Treatment
Websites for Kids and Teens
- Camp Kesem: For Kids with a Parent Who Has (or Has Had) Cancer
- Group Loop
- Imerman Angels
- Kids Konnected: Helping Kids & Teens with a Parent with Cancer, or Have Lost a Parent to Cancer
- KidsCope: Helping Kids and Families Understand Cancer
- RipRap: For 12-16 Year Olds Who Have a Parent with Cancer
- When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens