Talking With Your Children
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By Hester Hill Schnipper

Talking With Your Children

Have an open dialogue about cancer with your kids

By Hester Hill Schnipper


Parents with cancer worry about their children. What should I tell them? How will I care for them during my treatment? We all try to protect our children, and it’s painful to recognize that a parent’s diagnosis is bringing them sadness or concern.

The bottom line is that most children will do well if they’re given honest and age-appropriate information and kept on a routine that’s as normal as possible. It’s important to keep in mind that you did not choose to have cancer and that most patients will do well—and furthermore that your children can come through this experience with strength and greater maturity and sensitivity. If a parent is dying, the situation is much more difficult, but when parents are less ill, there are simple steps that can ease the impact on a child.

Be sure to tell your children about your cancer quickly, before they overhear something frightening. Children are marvelous observers and terrible interpreters of their environments, and will recognize that something is going on. Tell them the name of your diagnosis, a brief description of the treatment, and that you will be fine. A useful model is how you have spoken or will speak with them about sex. Give them accurate information, use the real words, do not overwhelm them with details, and remain available for additional talks. Try to be matter-of-fact, although tears do no harm. Reassure them that they will be cared for throughout the months ahead (tell them by whom if you can) and that their schedules will stay the same. Obviously, you give a 20-year-old different details than you give a 5-year-old, but the rules of honesty and routine apply equally.

It’s important to let your children’s schools know about your cancer so that teachers will be attentive to any changes in the children’s behavior. Also tell their pediatrician, soccer coach, and any other adults who play a major role in their lives. You can choose how much to say, but the word will get out, and you want your children to be surrounded by understanding adults. Older children may be consoled by conversations with other adults, and you can ask friends to be available if they want to talk.

Expect that healthy children will be quickly consumed by their own routines and needs. Children—adolescents especially—are self-involved, and their seeming indifference to your situation may be a sign of good coping. It does not mean that they don’t care and aren’t worried, but their focus should remain on themselves. It is helpful to tell older children that they do not need to worry about you now. Promise that you will tell them if it is ever time to worry—and keep that promise. For now, give them short news bulletins about your treatment and plans. Alert them of changes (like losing your hair), and be clear about the differences between your treatments and any medications they take.

If your children seem overly troubled, be quick to find help. Ask their pediatrician, school, or your caregivers for a referral to a therapist who is experienced in this situation. Remember that your children take their cues from you, that almost all children do very well in this situation, and that one day you will likely dance at their weddings and play with your grandchildren.