by Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C
A cancer diagnosis reaches far beyond the person with cancer – the entire family is affected, all the way down to the youngest child. When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, typically, the first thing they think about is “How do I tell my kids?”
Sometimes a parent may wonder, “Do I even need to tell my kids at all?” This certainly can be tempting, especially when children are very young, or if they tend to be anxious. Keep in mind that, even in the best of scenarios, cancer will cause changes in routines, a shift in caregiving roles, and a rise in your stress level. Children are extremely perceptive and will respond to these changes. If they are not given honest information, your children will fill in the blanks, creating a picture that might be much scarier than the reality.
There are five important things you want your child to know after a parent has been diagnosed with cancer:
1. Cancer is NOT your fault.
Nothing the child did or said caused the cancer.
2. Cancer is NOT contagious.
It is not like the cold or flu. Avoid using the word “sick” when explaining cancer. Let kids know they can continue to hug, kiss, and cuddle mom or dad and not “catch” cancer.
3. No matter what happens, you will be loved and cared for.
Acknowledge that there will be changes – some big, some small – but plans will be made to ensure their lunch will be prepared, someone will get them to school, and they will still be tucked in to bed at night.
Avoid using the word “sick” when explaining cancer. Let kids know they can continue to hug, kiss, and cuddle mom or dad and not “catch” cancer.
4. Any question is OK to ask, and I will give you an honest answer.
Create a safe space for kids to talk, and be available to truly listen. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” and get back to them when you have more information.
5. I will keep you informed.
If anything changes with your body, your prognosis, or plans that affect their life, let them know what to expect.
These guidelines are suitable for most kids ages four and up. Use language your child will understand – simpler words and shorter phrases for younger children. DO use the word cancer and explain it at a level they can understand. Use children’s books to help show and tell about cancer. Recognize that children respond differently and in their own time.
Babies and toddlers will not be able to understand what cancer means, but they will still pick up on environmental and caregiver changes. You can help them by maintaining their routine and primary caregivers as much as possible. You can also pull in a few close family members or friends to act as surrogate caregivers when you are not able to be with your child.
Parents often wonder if it is OK to be emotional with their kids. Absolutely. In the same way you are being honest in how you talk with your children, be authentic in the feelings you show. It is OK to cry. It is OK to show a little anger or fear. It models for your children that they too can have many different feelings. Find ways as a family to communicate with each other through talk, play, and art. Practice mindfulness together. Utilizing coping tools as a family can help bring you all together and normalize the experience.
More than anything else, remember that you know your kids the best. You have inside information and insight that supports your instinct. Trust it. The best combination is professional guidance and your own gut. Some parents benefit from seeking counseling before talking with their children as a means to wrap their own mind around the cancer diagnosis and rehearse what they want to say. If you feel that some professional support can help you prepare for a discussion with your children, do not hesitate to reach out.
And remember, telling your kids about a cancer diagnosis isn’t a one and done conversation. It is the beginning of an ongoing dialog as a family.
Carissa Hodgson is a family therapist and certified oncology social worker. For 10 years, she has worked with families facing cancer at Gilda’s Club Madison, WI, an affiliate of the Cancer Support Community. She is also cochair of the Children and Cancer Special Interest Group with the Association of Oncology Social Workers.
If you need help talking with your kids about cancer, check with your clinic to see if there are health psychologists or oncology social workers you can meet with. You can also call the Cancer Support Community to speak with a mental health professional, free of charge, at (888) 793-9355.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2019.