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How to talk to a child about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis

Here's help for telling your child that someone they love is seriously ill.

From Harvard Health Publishing

It’s an unfortunate truth: sometimes hard, bad things happen in life — including that sometimes parents, or other important people in a child’s life, get very sick.

It’s natural to want to shield a child from news like this, but that’s not a good idea. Children pick up on more than people realize — and can sometimes imagine things to be even worse than they are. Also, it’s important to help children develop the skills they need to weather a loved one’s illness, as well as to deal with the hard times that will likely come next.

Talking to a child about a cancer diagnosis: the first steps

Every child and situation are different. But here are some suggestions as you think about what to say — and how to say it.

Think about your child’s developmental stage. This is really important. Younger children won’t be able to understand or handle very much, but an older child or teenager will want and need to know more.

Remember that younger kids can be very literal, and might worry that they will “catch” cancer, or that somehow it’s their fault that someone got sick. Older children understand more, but will have different worries. If you aren’t sure exactly where your child is in the developmental spectrum, talk to your pediatrician.

Make a plan with your parenting partner first. The two of you should be on the same page about what you’re going to say to your child. It’s also important that you think together about how the news — and the illness — will affect kids, so that you can be ready to manage the logistical and emotional fallout.

Carve out enough time to chat. You may not need a long time, but it’s better to not feel rushed. At the same time, this is just the first of many conversations. You don’t have to pass along every bit of information you got from your oncology team in the first conversation.

Keep it simple and straightforward. For young children, the conversation may be as simple as, “Daddy is sick. He will be in the hospital for a while. The doctors are working to help him.”

For older children, it might be, “Daddy has cancer. It’s in his lungs. He is in the hospital for tests while the doctors figure out the best way to treat the cancer.” Use simple terms and simple sentences.

Be truthful. Being honest doesn’t mean going into every gory detail. But it does mean that if the illness is serious, you should say so. Let them know what may happen next, such as if the person might lose their hair from chemotherapy. Encourage questions, and answer them truthfully.

Don’t hide your own feelings. If you are sad or worried, say so. You want your child to know that it’s okay for them to feel that way, too. As time goes on, you’ll need to find healthy ways to deal with your emotions, as your child will be watching you for cues. You might also think about seeing a mental health professional together.

Talk about the helpers. Mr. Rogers always used to talk about the importance of pointing out to children the “helpers” in a scary situation, such as firefighters. Talk about the doctors and nurses and other people who are helping your loved one get better.

Talk about how this will affect their daily lives. Children of all ages worry about this. Let them know that you understand that they’re worried about it, and are planning for it. Try brainstorming together about how to manage any upcoming changes, but make sure they know they’ll be loved and taken care of, no matter what happens.

Be prepared for any reaction. Children may be upset — but they also may be angry, or not seem to react at all. Reactions can play out in all sorts of ways, like behavior changes or trouble at school. Also, kids may need time to take in the information, so their reactions may be delayed — or vary from day to day. Build check-in times into your daily life so that you can have more conversations, give updates, see how your child is doing, and see if new questions have come up for them.

Ask for help. Talk to your pediatrician. Get a referral to a social worker or mental health provider. Reach out to your faith community or any other available supports. It takes a village to raise a child, and this is especially true when someone that child loves is sick.