Talking to your child about their cancer diagnosis is not something any parent wants to prepare for.
We offer tips that can help make the conversation a little less scary – for all of you.
Choose a Comfortable Location
Plan to talk to your child in a place where they feel safe and comfortable, like your family’s playroom or in their bedroom.
Offer them their special blanket or stuffed animal. Talk to them in a gentle voice as you go into the conversation. It may be difficult, but try to remain as calm as possible. Putting on a brave face can help your child do the same.
Choose what information to share based on your son’s or daughter’s age, but always be honest. Children are very intuitive and can sense when they aren’t getting the truth. Speaking to them as you would with any other child their age can help them feel respected, which in turn can encourage them to respond in the same vein to the situation.
Before talking to your child, consider writing down all the facts and what you plan to share. This can help you gather your thoughts and go into the conversation feeling prepared. The medical provider can help you with the information and a forum to get all of your questions answered ahead of this conversation.
As you share the news, encourage your child to ask questions and be open with their thoughts and feelings. And don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know exactly how to answer each question. It’s OK to say you don’t have the answer right now – what matters is that you’ll figure it out together.
To help yourself prepare, here are some common questions children ask about cancer.
Depending on your child’s age, they will have different worries and reactions to this news. With all the medical procedures and symptoms they have experienced already, they likely are worried about the answers, so hearing from you is so important. Answers to many unasked questions provide support and reassurance – we can handle the known much better than the unknown.
Here are a few ways you can reassure a younger child:
- They didn’t do, say or think anything to cause the cancer. It is not their fault or anyone else’s.
- Cancer is not contagious and no one can catch it from them.
- Assure them that you will be with them every step of the way.
- The hospital is a place to make them better. Let them know it’s just temporary, and they can go home soon (if this is true).
- Cancer does not mean dying. They may know or have heard of someone passing away from cancer, and might associate it with dying. Assure your child that every type of cancer is different, and that there is treatment to help.
You may need to repeat these points many times during your child’s treatment. Say it as many times as they need to help comfort them.
Older children and teenagers may already know what cancer is and will likely have more detailed questions. You can talk them through:
- The impact on their day-to-day life, such as school, activities, and friends.
- Side effects relating to their physical appearance.
- Their role in making decisions about their treatment.
Most importantly, no matter what your child’s age, reassure them that you love them and will always be there for them.
Prepare Your Child for What’s Next
Once you’ve had the initial conversation, talk them through the next steps in their treatment plan.
Explain what treatment they will have, from medication to appointments and procedures. Take it one day, week or month at a time. Let them know all of these steps are to help make them better.
If they ask about pain, you can share that doctors are trained for many years to help make treatments less painful. Let your child know that you will learn more about tests and treatments together so you will all know how to prepare.
If they will be hospitalized, let them know when they can expect to come back home if you know that information. Most hospitals offer tours (in person or virtual) to familiarize your child with the space before they visit. This can help everyone in the family have a better idea of what is ahead.
Ask for Help
You don’t have to go through this alone. Get help from your child’s doctor or other specialists (social work, psychology, child life) on how to best approach this conversation. They have experience working with many families and can offer advice based on your child’s age and diagnosis.
Ways to Help Your Child Cope
This conversation is the beginning of a journey that will require strength from all members of your family. There are things you can do to prepare your child and make this journey a little easier:
- Tell your child’s teacher and friend’s parents how to explain the situation to their own families. Keeping your child’s support system informed can help form a tight knit, compassionate support group.
- Keep your child in touch with classmates and friends, whether it be through video chats or phone calls, video games or handwritten cards and letters. You can also create a free CaringBridge journal to share health updates, and show your child the support from loved ones. If your child wants to, they can create their own CaringBridge journal as well.
- Maintain normalcy with your schedule as much you can. Predictable schedules can help children feel in control of their environment, helping them feel safe, secure, and comfortable. Continue general rules and expectations for these same reasons.
- Bring brightness to your child’s day. Watch his or her favorite funny TV show, let them eat ice cream, have a supply of coloring books and games around. Find ways to make parts of his or her experience feel “cool” rather than scary.
- Find ways to connect with other families who have experienced cancer (e.g., talk with a social worker, check social media sites for parents of children with cancer, etc.). Talking to other kids who have gone through it may help your child feel better.
- Take things day by day. Lay out what is happening and what it might be like just for that day. That can be helpful not just for your child but for the whole family. Tackling each day as its own journey can feel less overwhelming.
- Find a counselor to help your child and the rest of your family work through what’s happening in a healthy way.
Talking to your child about cancer is one step of the journey, and we hope these tips helped you in planning conversations.
For more advice on navigating the stress and emotions of your child’s diagnosis, see our article How to Cope When Your Child Is Diagnosed with Cancer.
This article was reviewed by Sharon Berry, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as the associate clinical director and psychology director of training for Children’s Minnesota.