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When talking your child about cancer, keep 3 principles in mind:
Honesty and openness with your child will build trust and strengthen your relationship. It might be tempting not to tell your child that he or she has cancer or to try to shield him or her from negative information. It is natural to want to protect children from anything unpleasant.
But children are very observant. Even if it looks like they are not paying attention, they watch their parents, care team members, and other family members or adults to figure out what is going on. It is very likely that during some point in your child’s treatment, he or she will hear the word cancer (from staff, another hospital peer, or even family and friends visiting) even if you warn people not to use it. Many parents report that explaining cancer instead of trying to prevent people from talking about it takes less energy and can remove the strain of always trying to maintain defense.
Practice what you are going to say. Ask for advice from your child's care team or another parent who has been in a similar position.
The way you share information is also important. Your child will learn a lot from your tone of voice and facial expressions. Stay calm when you talk with your child. Tears are OK, but if they happen explain why you are crying. You might tell children that it is natural for parents to be sad when their child is sick or that it is normal for people to feel upset when there are so many changes. Tears are a way of expressing emotions. It is important that children are reassured that they didn’t cause cancer and it is not their fault that people feel sad.
Many parents receive their child’s diagnosis from the doctor at the same time that their child learns of it. But if you want to be the one to tell your child, your child’s care team can help you decide what to say and how to answer your child’s questions.
Tell children as early as possible. It will help build trust.
When you first talk with your child, consider asking another person to be with you. This person might be another family member or trusted friend who can provide support. It could also be a doctor, nurse, child life specialist, or social worker who can help describe cancer in more detail.
Most children and teens have the same basic questions:
Children need information to manage treatments or procedures, cope with feelings, and have some control over their situation. Most of all, they need to know they are loved, supported, and surrounded by people who care about them.
Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. You know the best way to tell them. Here are some helpful tips.
Each child is different. Their reactions and how they deal with a cancer diagnosis will vary depending on their age, level of development, and personality.
Children will follow your lead. Try to be calm and reassuring. Find ways to tell and show your children, (including siblings) that you will always be there for them.
There are some common fears that many children have when they learn about cancer. Your child may be scared to talk about these concerns. You may want to bring them up yourself. Use sentence starters such as: Some children think..., Have you heard... ?
As you encourage your child to share his or her feelings and questions, be open and honest about your own feelings and questions.
You can be your child's most important source of information and support.
Reviewed: June 2018