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How to Talk to Your Child About Cancer

A Guide to Explaining a Cancer Diagnosis

Cancer changes lives. A cancer diagnosis affects not just the person with the diagnosis, but everyone in that person’s life, including children. Talking to children about cancer is tricky, and every parent will have his or her own approach. If you’re faced with having to talk to your child about cancer, prepare and practice what you want to say, and adhere to the essential goal of telling the truth in a way your child can understand.

In this article you will find:

  • Tips on how to talk to your child about cancer
  • Common reactions to the discussion
  • Why it’s important to share the diagnosis with your child

6 Tips for Talking to Your Child About Cancer

1. Find the Time

While your world may be in constant flux, do your best to find an open-ended period of time to talk with your child. Account for possible distractions like phone calls, and give your child your complete attention. Interruptions may disrupt the conversation at a time when your child feels comfortable sharing with you.

If you have multiple children, you may want to speak to each individually. This can allow you to tailor your talk to their different ages, understandings and personalities.

2. Create a Safe Space

In addition to finding a time with few interruptions, you’ll want to talk with your child in a space with minimal distractions. This can make it easier to notice how your child is responding to each piece of news. Children may be more likely to engage and ask honest questions away from distractions and without their siblings or other people around. That said, you may want to enlist a partner for your talk. Whether another parent or a mentor in your child’s life, a partner can help you if you struggle in the conversation. Children may feel uncomfortable talking to the loved one with cancer after learning about the diagnosis, so having another adult present during the initial conversation provides a separate source of support from the start.

3. Take a Calm, But Honest Tone

Children take cues from adults, especially when it comes to tense or unfamiliar situations. Use a calm and reassuring voice as you tell your child what’s happening. It’s okay to become sad or emotional; expressing your feelings can help your child become comfortable with expressing his or her own emotions as well.

If you worry your emotions may get out of hand and scare your child, having a partner with you allows someone else to take over or answer questions while you compose yourself.

4. Find Their Level

When it comes to the content of the conversation, you may want to start by asking what your child already knows. This can help gauge the level of understanding both of cancer and the situation at hand. From here, you’ll have to decide how much to share, and this can often be guided by age. Take it slow, offering small amounts of information at a time and taking breaks between to ask if the child has any questions.

Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘cancer.’ It can help avoid confusion and create familiarity with a term your child will likely overhear a lot after your talk. Be prepared to talk about death. If it comes up, avoid euphemisms when possible; phrases like “passing away” can confuse children.

The American Cancer Society provides a list of words to describe cancer when talking to your child.

5. Reassure on All Fronts

Children may not know how to articulate a lot of what they are feeling when they learn someone they know has cancer. During your talk, you should do your best to alleviate anxieties that your child may not be able to verbalize as questions.

Children often feel guilt, so you should emphasize that cancer is no one’s fault, especially not your child’s. This is particularly important if the person facing cancer is a peer or friend, as your child may be afraid that he or she might get it too or that bad behavior could cause cancer.

You may also want to emphasize that cancer is not contagious, and in the case of a parent, that your child will always be cared for.

6. Explain What Happens Next

Depending on when you talk to your child, he or she may have already begun to notice life changes. Children rely on and grow with routine; let them know theirs will stay as consistent as possible, but there may be small changes, such as a different parent or family member picking them up from school or daycare. It’s important to explain what comes next, specifically with regard to how treatment can affect a person. Prepare your child for hair, weight and energy loss.

If your child is dealing with a friend’s cancer diagnosis, explain that that child may be absent more from school and may not have the energy for all the games they used to play. However, also emphasize what hasn’t changed: the friendship. That child is still the same person with whom your child became friends.

Children may also assume that cancer means death; this is most common in children who are aware of another person who has died from cancer. Do your best to explain that there are many different types of cancer, with different treatments and outcomes.

Reactions and How You Can Help

While your child has been primed on what to expect with treatment and change, you should also be aware of how your child’s knowledge may affect behavior. Children will react differently depending on their age, personality and how they learn about the cancer; this is where your unique knowledge of your child can help you most.

Some children may tell you how they’re feeling, in which case try to always be listening, but most children will act out their emotions. This can result in bedwetting, eating or sleeping pattern changes, or just backsliding in maturity.

School-age children are most likely to experience changes in behavior, schoolwork and friendship as they have a more developed understanding of what is happening but don’t know how to talk about it.

Encourage your child to express feelings, and lead by example with honest communication. Let your child be involved as much as possible and appropriate, such as bringing glasses of water or an extra blanket to a parent or visiting and writing letters to a friend in the hospital.

Why Talk to Your Child

Talking about a cancer diagnosis is beneficial for both you and your child. While the first instinct is to protect your child from the news, cancer can change your life, and your child is sure to notice everything from whispered conversations to a change in tone at home. Children can very likely find out about a cancer diagnosis from a neighbor, relative or classmate who lets something slip, which may create hurt, misunderstanding or a lack of trust. Losing the opportunity to be the one to share the news can affect your ability to build a relationship to weather the diagnosis together.

Sharing important information with your child builds trust and shows that you value him or her. Research shows that a close relationship with an adult who values and supports them can help children get through tough times. It can also enhance their self-esteem.

If someone your child knows is facing cancer, your child will be experiencing a lot of unfamiliar emotions. Feeling hurt or excluded from what’s happening to a friend or family member can complicate what is already a new experience. Research suggests that children who are told about a loved one’s illness cope better than children who are kept in the dark.

Keeping a cancer diagnosis from your child can also make it more difficult for you. You may feel guilty or need to change your routine even more significantly to hide appointments or conversations from your child. Secrets can add to your anxiety and drain your energy at a time when stress may already be high.

Ultimately, talking to your child about cancer will be a call you make as a parent: you know your child best, and that understanding will inform how you approach what is a deeply personal situation.