Children usually sense something is wrong even before they are told a family member has cancer. They also overhear conversations in the household. Not being told what is going on makes them worry more and causes stress in their lives. Although it is first instinct to not tell children about something difficult like cancer, avoiding talking about it only confuses them and makes them more fearful.
Remember that children talk amongst themselves. This means that telling only one child or holding information back from one you believe too young only confuses and misleads them more. Talk to your children about your cancer. Listen to their concerns and answer the questions they ask.
Use clear language when discussing cancer. Use the term cancer, instead of a substitute. Your children need specific terms and information to prevent confusion or misunderstanding.
For your younger children, explain things simply. For older children, provide more details to reduce their fear and feelings of hopelessness.
Reassure your children that the cancer is not anyone’s fault. Also ensure they know cancer is not something they can catch, that it is not contagious. Let them express their feelings. Tell them it is okay to feel a wide variety of feelings, such as anger, fear and sadness. Let them know too that it is still okay for them to enjoy their lives, feel happy and focus on having good days.
Tell your children they are free to ask any questions they need to ask and that you will be honest with them, even when you do not know the right answer. Be hopeful in how you describe the situation. Focus on what is positive, such as how the cancer will be treated and what they will be like. But do not sugar-coat the reality of their family member’s cancer.
It is not necessary to tell your children every detail about the loved one’s cancer. Be appropriate for the child’s age. If they ask about death, use clear terms. Be specific but avoid using phrases like “passing away” or “sleeping.” You do not want your children to confuse sleep with dying or misunderstand that death is final because of unclear terms.
If you feel nervous about talking to your kids, practice the conversation with another adult. Let that person give you feedback about how you sound and your word choices. Stay calm when talking to the children and avoid being emotional.
Anytime you realize you need help, support or guidance during and after cancer treatment, talk to your doctor or treatment team for that help. This includes talking to the treatment professionals about your children’s needs during your cancer treatment. Sometimes children need help talking about cancer and handling their feelings. Your support team welcomes making referrals for your children or helping you find the family resources you need.