In your role as parent, you are your child’s entire world. They rely on you as their guidepost for how to react to all that surround them and is happening in their environment, and to be their rock when things feel uncertain. Children look to their parents for comfort and support in good times and bad, so it is completely understandable for you to be concerned about what the best way is to tell your child you have cancer.
Fortunately, there are many support systems and resources available to help you with this process, and many pediatricians, child psychologists and cancer survivors and their loved ones have weighed in on what works. Though every situation is different, both in terms of your relationship with your child, your child’s personality, and your specific prognosis, there are certain guidelines that have proven to be helpful in almost every circumstance.
Most people believe that it is better to keep your children informed about your illness rather than keeping it a secret, in large part because children are keenly aware of changes in the household routine, and will likely sense that something is different. Whether your child approaches you to ask what is going on or you make the decision to sit down and talk with them, make sure that you keep all of your conversations age appropriate so that you don’t overwhelm a younger child with more information then they can handle, or condescend to an older child who feels that they are an adult.
The general consensus among child psychology experts is that when you tell your child you have cancer you need to be careful not to provide your child with more information than they want or need. In a recent blog post, Marni Amsellem, PhD. Marni, a research consultant for the Cancer Support Community, suggests you consider the following: “Is your child someone who finds comfort in having a great deal of information about what is going on around him/ her, or is less more?” Parents can often become swept up in their own narrative, providing details about treatments and side effects and long-term outcomes or possibilities that the child is not looking for in the given moment.
Start with the basics about your being sick, what the sickness is, and what they need to know at this point in time, then sit back and answer their questions. What they ask will be your guidepost to what you should tell, and as the information that you provide settles in, expect that there will be many more questions in the days ahead. It is also important to remember that even older children tend to view change in terms of how it will affect them, so make sure that you frame your discussion in this way.
Reassure your child that they will be able to continue their activities, or that you will continue reading to them or cooking for them or whatever their primary concern is, or if this is not the case explain who will be providing those services. Don’t be disappointed if their chief concern is about themselves. Cancer news is overwhelming, and most children do not have the maturity to see the information in terms of its long-term impact, or even to empathize with its effects on you or the rest of the family.
In a notable story that appeared in the New York Times, one woman who was diagnosed with cancer many years ago decided to keep her diagnosis a secret from her sons, believing that they had enough to deal with as a result of her divorce and the challenging environment that they were growing up with. Speaking of her decision, Matilde Perez said that it was more important for her to keep her children focused on their education. “I didn’t want them to grow up thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose my mom.’” Though Perez stands by her decision, her sons now know about her illness.
There are a wealth of resources available to assist you in explaining your situation to your children, no matter their age or learning style. From picture books to medical brochures, have these resources available in case you need them, and use them if you think it helps – but don’t bury your child with too much information.
Perhaps most importantly of all, make sure that your child knows that you and other people in your inner circle are there for them to ask questions or talk to as the news begins to sink in. The more readily available you and others are, the more open your child is likely to be. Make sure that you have communicated with others who your child may seek out for help to ensure that everybody is providing the same message.
Cancer Support Community offers some support references are provided within a booklet called, “Frankly Speaking About Cancer: What Do I Tell The Kids,” which can be found in PDF format by clicking here. This booklet gives an overview of general levels of comprehension about cancer in children, common reactions, thoughts and strategies for discussing cancer with children, broken down by the age of the child. Additionally, resources can be obtained from your healthcare team and/or medical facility as well as patient support organizations such as the Cancer Support Community.
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