How to Discuss Cancer with a Child

A father sits with child on the grass as the two talk seriouslyWhen cancer hits home, it can be a lot for everyone to process. Questions may arise, many of which can’t be answered or might have complex or uncertain answers. Discussing cancer with a loved one often presents many challenges, particularly when it comes to children.

Planning these conversations can feel overwhelming and may elicit significant anxiety just from thinking about what to say and how to say it. Do the children really need to know that grandma has cancer? What, exactly, do the children need to know about grandpa’s diagnosis? How should we discuss a spouse’s diagnosis with our children? What will they understand? How will they react? How do we answer questions we don’t know the answers to? Will we be able to keep it together emotionally?

With careful thought about what to say and how to say it, such conversations may turn out to be less challenging than anticipated. Following are some tips to facilitate conversations with children about cancer. You’ll want to consider:

  • The relationship between the child and the person with cancer: If the person is someone who is an active part of the child’s life, discussing developments involving the important people in their lives is inevitable. Children will pick up on changes in their immediate world and will appreciate being let in on the changes early in the process.
  • The age of the child: With younger children, it’s generally best to provide short answers with basic facts. For older children, you may be able to offer more detailed information.
  • The child’s preferences for information: Some children (and adults) find comfort in having ample information, whereas others prefer not to know certain things.
  • Language you’ll use to discuss cancer and its treatment: Some experts recommend using the accurate words (e.g., cancer, chemotherapy) to help your child have the language to think about what is happening and discuss it. Regardless of age, use simple and clear language whenever possible.
  • How you’ll acknowledge the child’s emotional response: It’s important to acknowledge that having feelings—even uncomfortable feelings—is normal. You are sharing some big and perhaps scary information with the child, and they may not be sure how to react. Reaffirm it is understandable and appropriate to have emotional reactions to this news, and there are no right or wrong ways to feel. That said, sometimes children have less of an emotional reaction to big news than adults expect, at least initially. Be prepared for delayed responses and check back in.

The important thing is for the child to know it is okay to have a reaction, even if the reaction doesn’t feel comfortable. Similarly, it’s important to be aware of whether your fear of upsetting your child is holding you back from having a difficult conversation.

  • How you’ll address your own emotions: Whether it’s appropriate to share your own emotions may vary based on the child’s age, maturity level, and the nature of the news. The important thing is for the child to know it is okay to have a reaction, even if the reaction doesn’t feel comfortable. Similarly, it’s important to be aware of whether your fear of upsetting your child is holding you back from having a difficult conversation.
  • Anticipated questions and concerns: Do you anticipate concerns that your child has or will have down the road? If you sense something is on their minds, let them know it is okay to share. Ask whether there is something they would like to know that may be weighing on their minds. Consider how will you address these concerns. Whatever you share, they may have follow-up questions. Let them know they can come to you with questions, as often there are things on their mind that they don’t know how to ask, or there are new questions that arise over time.
  • Resources to help children cope: Browse literature written for children about illness to see what may be appropriate to share. Many children relate to how another child experiences something similar. A book may also serve as a catalyst to discuss challenging topics in the family. Also consider, if appropriate, encouraging journaling, drawing, or existing community resources that offer support to children who have a loved one diagnosed with cancer.
  • Be open to receiving support for yourself: As with most challenges, there is no need to go through this alone. There is much outside support available, even if it seems hard to find. Health care providers can assist with making referrals to support groups or therapists to help manage emotions. There are many reputable websites that can also steer you in the right direction. Support may come in different forms, of course. For families, this may mean accepting meals from friends, neighbors, or community, and asking for help with carpools or child care. A side benefit is your child will see how much others in their world care.

Considering the tips above may enable a smoother adjustment for you and your family. When challenges arise, seek support.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marni Amsellem, PhD, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • mistee

    October 5th, 2016 at 10:02 AM

    I have known people who have tried to avoid talking about it at all and avoiding the conversation that needed to happen. By the time they had the talk with the children by then it was really too late for them to get comfortable with it before the loved one did. I know that there are those who want to try to spare feelings but the truth for me is that it is better to put it all out there and at least that will give them the chance to ask questions when they want some answers.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    October 6th, 2016 at 11:45 AM

    Thanks Mistee for the comment. While people have to find the right balance for their families while figuring out how much to disclose, experts would agree with you and recommend promoting open communication.

  • Cate

    October 6th, 2016 at 6:39 AM

    Much of it has to be done with the age of the child in mind, knowing what they can possibly handle at this time. You don’t want to overload and scare them but you also don’t want them feeling like they are completely out of the loop either. Be gentle with them, give them what they need at the appropriate time to get through the illness.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    October 6th, 2016 at 11:46 AM

    Good advice, Cate! Thanks for the comment.

  • Mildred

    October 6th, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    you can go a long way toward easing their fears when you are willing to be open with them. of course they will have questions that there may not be easy answers for, but you are the adult and they are the child. Find a way to help them feel protected.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    October 6th, 2016 at 11:49 AM

    Absolutely this is not an easy thing to process or to discuss, and openness is ultimately appreciated. Thanks for the great comment, Mildred.

  • Erica

    October 6th, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    It is pretty safe to give them what they are asking for, no more and no less.

  • Julian

    October 7th, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    I hope that I never have to!

  • Emanuel

    October 10th, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    My mom died when I was very young from breast cancer but there is this void that I have because no one ever wanted to talk about her to me. I guess that it was just hurtful to them to talk about her, but I have very few memories of her and wish so badly that they could have told me little things about her to help me keep her alive in my mind. I couldn’t have understood it all but I think that conversations about her could have helped me preserve a little more of what time I had with her.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    October 11th, 2016 at 11:46 AM

    Thank you for sharing, Emanuel. Your comment illustrates so well the importance of communication. I know what you are mostly talking about is adults’ fear of saying things about your mother to you when you were younger, but it is obviously connected to the content of this article.

  • taylor

    October 11th, 2016 at 10:31 AM

    I know that this has to be a terrible conversation to have to have with a person, young or old, but those of us who are adults know how to process the information. It might not make it any easier but you know that it has to be easier than a child hearing that someone that they love is sick and could die. I am thinking that this is probably one of the scariest things that any of us could ever learn.

  • Dr. Marni Amsellem

    October 11th, 2016 at 11:49 AM

    Thanks for the comment, Taylor. Yes, it is so important to try to put oneself in the shoes of the person they are sharing this news with and try to imagine what that experience might be for them as they hear the news. Asking directly about their experience when they hear such news opens up lines of communication and lets them know their reactions matter.

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