Talking to Your Kids About the Cancer Diagnosis

 In Current Blog

May 7, 2012
By: Sandy Lipkus, MSc SW

For those of you who are parents and are in a dilemma on how to talk to your children about your cancer diagnosis, I am about to give you some tips that will make this conversation a little easier.

No matter what words are used, one of the most important things for parents to get across is their desire to tell the truth. This does not mean that you should tell your kids everything you know as soon as you know it. It means that children should be given truthful information when they need to have it in order to cope well. For example, you might want to say something like “I don’t want you to worry about the future at this point. Let’s think about what’s going on right now. If that should change, I promise you I will tell you. I want you to ask me any questions you have and I’ll do my best to answer them.” Be willing to talk whenever your child asks questions or seems concerned about your condition. Keep in mind that the answers to their questions should be adapted to the age of the child.

The list below offers some helpful tips on what exactly to say and do:

Hug your children, maintain physical closeness and reassure them that they will be taken care of.

Explain and reinforce that they did not do anything to make you sick, and neither did you.

Don’t assume they don’t understand what is going on. They may have a reasonable idea about the seriousness of the situation. Explore what they know and understand.

Encourage physical activity and expression of emotions through music, drawing, painting, etc.

Give your child a lot of opportunity to talk, but be prepared as well to just “be together.”

Show your feelings so your child is encouraged to share his/hers.

Reassure children that they are healthy.

Because sometimes it is ‘not cool’ for a child to show physical affection, you will usually need to be the one – especially with older children.

Allow your child to participate (if they wish) in the care of the sick parent with tasks that are appropriate (ie: helping bring Mommy lunch, straighten blankets, rub arm).

Don’t pile too much responsibility on your teen for house and family, or make them assume adult roles.

Acknowledge how hard it must be to feel torn between spending time with parents and spending time with friends. Try not to judge this. Your teen is struggling with social pressure that commonly pre-occupies adolescents. It is important that they carry on with some of their normal activities with friends.

Encourage your child to be with friends. Friends often provide a valuable support group for them.

Balancing family, friends and your many responsibilities is challenging enough, but adding a cancer diagnosis to the mix means even more stress. Add to that the difficulty of sharing information with your children. Remember that each child responds in his or her own way to the news of a parent’s cancer diagnosis. The child’s age, personality, relationship to the parent, and the way information is presented are just a few factors that can influence how a child will react. I hope that these practical suggestions will be helpful for you as you begin to dialogue with your children.

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