6 Tips for Talking to Your Children about Cancer

Posted on August 25, 2015 at 1:55 PM

One of my areas of specialty is Psycho-oncology. For years I have provided psychotherapeutic support to individuals and families dealing with cancer diagnosis. I collaborate with the individuals I work with to help them develop coping strategies that support them in managing their stress, sadness and social changes as healthfully as possible. I also recently ran a support group at Gilda’s Club in Fort Lauderdale for children between the ages of 6 and 12 who were affected by cancer diagnosis. It was incredible to see the insight and support that the children offered one another. I was inspried to write this post while I was reading the book The Silver Lining: A Suppotive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer by Hollye Jacobs. (I screen any self help books before I recommended them to my clients).

When a family is dealing with cancer diagnosis one of the first questions I receive is “how do I tell my children?” Dealing with cancer diagnosis is extremely challenging at any stage in life; however, when one has school age children in the home this already challenging situation can become even more complicated and stressful.

Here are 6 tips for discussing cancer with your children:

1. Don’t avoid!!

Many well-meaning parents I have worked with are very tempted to hide the truth from their children in effort to protect them. This DOES NOT WORK. Children know when there is something going wrong within the family whether it is illness or divorce. In my experience if children know something is amyss and no one is talking to them about it they will create something in their minds that is far worse than reality.


2. Prepare talking points

Many parents have informed me that telling their child that a family member has cancer was one of the most difficult conversations they have ever had in their lives. Make talking points about your loved one’s diagnosis and treatment to ensure the conversation is as structured and complete as possible. Also, aim to keep explanations concise. Some adults have a tendency to become verbose when they are nervous. Children often find lengthy explanations to be anxiety provoking and difficult to follow.

3. Communicate with the child at a developmentally appropriate level


Speak with your child at a level that is developmentally appropriate. Use words and terminology that are congruent with where the child is emotionally and intellectually. To make sure they understand what you are discussing ask them periodically to explain what you said in their own words.


4. Make sure there is appropriate time and space designated for their reactions and questions.


It is impossible to predict how a child will react to horrific news. Make sure that there is plenty of time for the child to react and ask questions. Also, make sure the conversation takes place in an environment that is safe, familiar and private for the child. Many parents I work with chose to have the conversation in their bedroom or the child’s bedroom.


5. Expects lots of questions and keep an open line of communication


Children will likely have lots of questions during the conversation and throughout their family member’s cancer treatment. The types of questions parents are asked vary and depend on the child’s age and intelligence. It is important to keep an open line of communication between yourselves and the child. Reassure the child that it is healthy to ask questions.


6. Maintain their routine as much as possible:

Sometimes parents are tempted to let their children stay up late or have more indulgent snacks than usual after presenting such disturbing news to the child. In my years working with children I have noticed that most children thrive in structured and healthy environments. In many cases structure and predictability is even more important than usual when something is going wrong in the child’s life. I recommend that parents keep household rules, discipline, bedtimes, eating and extracurricular activities as they were before the cancer diagnosis. This may require enlisting the help of family and friends.

If you or someone you love is struggling with the emotional challenges of cancer diagnosis and would like help. Please call me for a free consultation at 561-299-0483.

For more detailed information on this topic I highly recommend the following resources:

The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer By: Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW


When a Parent has Cancer By: Dr. Wendy Schelessel Harpham


How to Help Children Cope with a Parent’s Serious Illness By: Kathleen McCue


In Mommy’s Garden By: Neyal J Ammary, MPH, MCHES


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