What do I say to my kids about cancer?
One of the first things mums often think about when they are told they have cancer is how it’s all going to affect the people they love, especially their children. Thoughts swirl around like “what to do I tell the kids?” “they are going to be so scared” “kids just don’t understand this stuff”.
Parents worry about whether they should delay telling children until they know more about what’s happening or have a ‘better’ time.
Lots of the scary thoughts that show up aren’t true; they are bubbling up out of fear. And that’s not only fear from parents, it’s often from others who may believe that children need to be shielded from cancer or other challenges in life.
The thing about kids is that they have a radar for when something is up! They are observant, can ‘smell a rat’ and you just can’t hide things from them. Just see how incredibly aware they suddenly are when you whisper “ice cream” from another room!
What research tells us is that kids benefit from knowing what is happening when someone close to them has cancer. They can and do adjust. If you lie to them (even if it’s by leaving out information, being ‘economical’ with the truth, glossing over things or whatever) they just fill in the blanks. And the blanks are usually way worse than reality. If it all seems too awful for you to tell them the truth, then they draw their own conclusions – like assuming they are to blame or caused the cancer in some way.
You can do some preparation to talk to kids about cancer; first of all, think about their ages and understanding and, if you have more than one child, whether you would like to talk to the children separately or together. Children need information they can understand at a time they have a chance to absorb, think and ask about it.
The basic idea is to be gentle and truthful. Be prepared for questions (even the hard ones like “are you going to die?”).
If you have early disease, you can talk about the treatments being chosen by the doctors to make you well and keep you well. If you need to talk about advanced disease, you can explain what the treatments are aiming to do; to help you to stay as well as you can and be involved with your life.
Allow kids to ask questions and reassure them that you won’t lie (and then don’t lie!) and that, if a situation changes, you will let them know and talk about it. You might cry and so might they. So what? The aim is to be honest and to share this thing that is happening to your family.
All the time we ask children to tell us what is bothering them, even if they think we will be upset or cross; because being honest is important and we care and want to help. So don’t undermine your own message but covering up cancer; you can tell them this even if it might be upsetting or scary or make them cry.
What’s refreshing is that, often, you get yourself all ready, talk to them and then they say “Ok..what’s for dinner?”. And the avalanche has passed and you smile at what just happened there, and kids being kids. There’s not only one chance to have this conversation, like anything in their lives. It doesn’t have to be perfect – take the pressure off yourself!
Here are some basic tips:
- Understand that kids are sponges and you can’t fool them
- Find out what they know first – this can be fascinating!
- Use the word “cancer” even if you think it might seem scary at first
- Use language appropriate for their age
- Make a time to talk and practice before if you want to
- There is no “perfect” way to do this; just do it
- Secrecy makes things worse and they have a right to know
- They did not cause the cancer and it is not contagious
- Tell them what has happened and what is going to happen now
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep; be gentle and hopeful
- Explain why you are staying in hospital (or why they are staying with others)
- Talk about the types of treatment and their timeframes
- Prepare them for physical changes (such as a changed breast, a stoma, a scar or losing hair)
- It’s OK to ask questions (tell them about others they can ask too)
- It’s OK to have feelings about this and to tell you
- Provide ideas and opportunities for them to help you
- Be realistic and leave them with a feeling of hope
- Reassure them that they are loved and will be cared for
There are good resources out there on talking to kids about cancer, have a look at: