Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is never easy. And if you have a family to take care of, the pressure is even more challenging. Many parents have different thoughts on how to talk to their children about their disease and have many questions. How much should you tell them? Will they understand? When should I tell them? How will they take it?
These are all common concerns of patients with children at home. Depending upon the age and maturity level of each child, there are different ways to approach them and unique concerns for each. While every parent/child relationship is different, there are some general rules you can follow when it comes to talking to your kids about your disease. These can be altered, as only you know your children best.
1. Tell your children that you have cancer and your doctors are helping you get better.
If you don’t tell your children, the unspoken message is that you don’t think they can deal with what is happening because it’s so terrible. This leaves children imagining the worst. It’s best to communicate general information about your cancer, acknowledge that difficult things are happening, and show them how you’re going to deal with everything as a family. Let children know about the resources that are available to everyone during this time.
2. Figure out what your child is thinking. Ask what your child knows and what they have heard people say about cancer.
Children have thoughts and feelings that may surprise you. Learning what they are thinking will allow you to correct misperceptions, answer their questions, and help them deal with feelings they are experiencing.
3. Talk with your child frequently during and after treatment.
Children gradually comprehend what is happening when a family member has cancer. As time passes, and new events occur, children will need help in coping. Talking to your child is not just one conversation. Instead, have a series of conversations so you can understand what is important to your child and help your child deal with changing circumstances.
4. Help your child cope in ways that fit with his/her personality.
There is no right or wrong way for a child to cope with a parent’s illness. Some will want to talk, while others will choose to return to routine activities. Some will seem worried; others will joke. Unless you see major changes in a child’s behavior, mood, or relationships, you don’t need to seek professional help for your child.
5. Know that it’s OK to talk about the possibility of dying.
If you’re in the early stages of treatment, or if you have a good prognosis, most parents find it best to say that they do not expect to die from the disease. Since most children are aware that people die from cancer, explain to your child that there are more than a hundred types of cancer, and that many do not result in death.
If your cancer is at a stage at which you think that you could die in the relatively near future, then it’s important to talk to your child about this so you can help them cope with this deep sadness. Think about what you know about each child that will help them deal with your death, and help them find ways to cope with their concerns. Talk to your children about the people who will support them and the values and resources which help you deal with the possibility of death and which will help sustain them if you should die.
While these suggestions apply to children of all ages, there are some things you should keep in mind when dealing with preschool/school age children, and teenagers, as they are in different developmental stages:
- Children frequently misunderstand what they hear, so ask children what they heard you say, correct any misperceptions, and address questions.
- Young children think in terms of fault, and worry that they did something to cause the cancer. Make sure that children know that it’s no one’s fault and that they can’t catch it from you.
- Avoid words that are used to refer to a child’s medical problems such as “boo-boo.”
- Having an illness in the family interrupts a teenager’s normal development task of separating from their family.
- Encourage adolescents to continue their moves toward being independent, while also letting them know at that, at times, more work and family involvement will be required.
If you’re struggling to find the right words to say to your children, or you or your family is having a hard time coping, there are resources to help you get through.
UPMC CancerCenter Behavioral Medicine specializes in helping patients and families manage life challenges, including living with cancer. In addition to communication with children, the team can help you and your family with stress management, end-of-life issues and grief, work concerns, and more. Visit us online for more information.