Coping With Emotions

How to Tell Your Child You Have Cancer

Side-by-side activities are great for big talks because there is less pressure to fill every silence with words. It provides the kids with more pressure-free time to process and put words around their thoughts and questions.

It’s a conversation no one wants to have. Hearing you have cancer is hard enough, but figuring out how to tell your child you have cancer can be heartbreaking. Though it may be tempting to shield them from the truth, a cancer diagnosis impacts the entire family. Open communication with your child can help them adapt to change and ease some of their concerns.

Kids Are Perceptive

There may be a lot about the world that children don’t understand, but they tend to be very aware of their parents’ moods. If something is bothering mom and dad, if their parents are worried or anxious, they know. They may not know why, but they know something is going on.

Children are often blessed with a rich and creative imagination. When they sense their parents are anxious, but don’t have any useful information, they often use their imagination to fill in the blanks, coming up with explanations that may be scarier than the truth.

How to Tell Your Child You Have Cancer

Discussing your cancer diagnosis should not be a one-time event, never to be discussed again. Smaller, casual conversations are easier to absorb than a formal family meeting. As you move through treatment, its impact on you and your family will change. The whole family will need to continue to adapt to cancer’s changing demands on your energy and resources.

Check in with your child frequently to gauge how they’re dealing with the situation and to keep them up to date with what’s going on. Addressing issues as they arise will help keep the lines of communication open between parent and child, and help everyone adapt as necessary. This can also help your child feel more comfortable bringing up their questions and concerns as they think of them.

Focus on Their Needs

Sure, children will be concerned about how this new reality will impact their parents, but what they really need to know is what this means in their own lives. Who will remember that they like their sandwiches cut vertically instead of diagonally? Who will sing the goodnight song and tuck them in at bedtime? Who will be in the stands to cheer them on at the state championship next month? Is everyone going to think they’re a freak because their mom is bald? Are they going to have to miss out on their social life because they have to stay home and babysit the little ones while dad is sick?

Parents may not have answers for all the concerns children carry around in their hearts, but just knowing that their concerns have been heard and are being taken seriously can ease some of the burden. Start a list of the things your child is worried about, and address as many as you can. Maybe on the nights mom is in the hospital, she can Skype with the family to sing the goodnight song together. Perhaps an older child can earn extra privileges in exchange for time babysitting their younger siblings. Meeting needs directly where you can, and finding a compromise on other issues will help your child understand that they are not getting left behind or overlooked in this cancer experience.

Focus on Getting Through This Together

The family is a team. Everyone supports each other and works together, and when someone gets sick, everyone pulls together to help them through it. Making your child feel like a part of the team will help them face this challenge. It feels good to be part of the solution.

Children are quite resilient, and they can overcome a lot, especially if they’re treated with respect and love while they are experiencing these challenges. Keeping communication open and available will help children thrive despite their parent’s illness.

UVA Cancer Center offers a number of support services to help you and your family adjust to life with cancer.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley