Coping With Emotions

Helping Kids Understand Cancer When They Share the News at School

When helping your child plan how to tell people at school about your diagnosis, have her anticipate and role-play how other kids may react. Encourage her to reflect on her own experience learning about your illness.

Back to school time is hectic for everyone. If you were recently diagnosed with cancer, you may still be helping your child cope with the news. Now it’s also time for helping kids understand cancer and planning what to tell people when they return to school.

The American Cancer Society calls cancer “an impossible secret to keep,” but that doesn’t mean you and your child aren’t entitled to privacy. Your child may not want to talk about your illness to others, or she may welcome the support of schoolmates. If that’s the case, work together to compromise and meet the emotional needs of you both.

Make Sure Your Child Knows

First, take the time to double-check your child is up-to-date on your situation. The American Cancer Society emphasizes that children need to know basic information when a close family member has cancer. Key details include:

  • The name of the cancer (such as lung cancer or lymphoma)
  • Where the cancer is in your body
  • How you’re being treated
  • How cancer alters their lives

Beyond the basics, what you say should be determined by your child’s age and desire for knowledge. Reassure younger children that cancer is not contagious and they did nothing to cause your illness. Let them know that you’ll share new information about your illness as you get it. Encourage them to come to you with questions and concerns as they develop.

Prepare Your Child to Tell Others

A big part of helping kids understand cancer is letting them know who and what is appropriate to tell. If you’re comfortable with it, allow your child decide who to tell. Help her anticipate how other kids might react by reflecting on her own experience learning about your illness. What questions did she have? What information seemed most helpful? This is a good opportunity to role-play together so she can anticipate multiple reactions.

Just as your child is filtering news of your diagnosis through her own lens, so will her friends and schoolmates. They may share experiences and stories from their own family, both positive and negative, so prepare your child for that. According to the American Cancer Society, if family members have died from cancer in the past, children may assume it will happen again. To ease worry or avoid your kids getting emotional when they tell people, you can explain that:

  • There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer, with many types of treatment.
  • Each patient responds differently to treatment.
  • More effective treatments are being tested every day.
  • People are getting more hopeful about cancer treatment advances.

Informing Your Child’s Teachers

When it comes to other adults, it’s generally your choice who to tell. But your child’s teachers should probably know about your diagnosis. Your child may need some extra emotional or academic support as you undergo treatment. Establishing lines of communication now means you’ll be more likely to hear about any challenges before they become problems.

Instead of relying on your child to tell teachers, do that yourself. That way you can be certain the teacher knows all relevant details. When you do tell them, set rules and make sure everyone knows what’s appropriate to tell other parents and faculty and what isn’t.

As far as what to say to the teacher, be direct and share any information you think is relevant. Let teachers know about any scheduling or transportation issues that may affect your child and stress. Most importantly, reiterate that you want your child’s life to remain as normal as possible.

Unsure how to help your child tell friends and teachers about your cancer diagnosis? Let UVA Cancer Center social workers help.

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Darcy Lewis
Darcy Lewis