Talking to kids about cancer

April 23, 2014 Tricia Matteson, MSW, LSWAIC

What do I tell my kids?” 

This is often the first question I’m asked by a parent with a new cancer diagnosis.  One of the most important things for parents to remember is that they know their children better than anyone else and they love them more than anyone…they can trust themselves to do this well.
Beyond that general reassurance, however, there are some practical tips for talking with children about a cancer diagnosis. 
Prepare for the conversation 
Think about your goals for the conversation.  What does your child need to know?  How you can help your child understand what’s going on?  How do you want your child to feel after the talk?  Who should tell your child you have cancer and can the person talking to your child stay relatively calm?
When and where should I have this conversation?  You don’t have to wait until you have all the answers.  Be prepared to share some basic information such as the name of the cancer, what part of your body it affects, and how it might be treated.  Make sure you have plenty of time to talk and answer questions.  Think about a place and time that will be private, comfortable, familiar, and free of distractions and interruptions. 
Try to imagine how the conversation will go.  This can help you plan what you’ll say and think about how your child might react.  You can even practice out loud – by yourself, with a trusted friend or family member, or with your oncology social worker.  Your child may have a short attention span, so try to get to the important things early in the conversation.
Be open and honest
This will help to build trust, so your child will trust that you are telling the truth in the future when you give updates on your health.  Keeping the news a secret is difficult and can create a lot of additional stress. 
Make the information age-appropriate.  If you have more than one child, you may even need to speak to your children separately.  A social worker can give advice on how to tell children of different ages about cancer. 
Use real words.  It’s okay to say “cancer.”  In fact, it’s more than okay – it’s important. Naming your illness gives both you and your child permission to talk about it.  They may not know what the word means, so explain it using clear, age-appropriate language. 
Encourage questions.
During the talk, look for signs that your child has learned enough for one day (such as being unable to focus, having trouble sitting still, looking tired, or changing the subject). 
Repeat the information. 
Be a good listener:  Look your child in the eye.  Don’t interrupt your children when they are talking. Nod so your child knows you understand or agree.  Lean in. 
Remember, this talk is only the first of many.  Keep in mind that if your child feels comfortable with the first conversation, she will be more likely to come to you for open, honest talks in the future.   
Oncology social workers are available to assist with communication strategies, and you can also find resources in our Cancer Education Centers.  
To speak with an oncology social worker, please call:
First Hill:  206-386-3228
Ballard:  206-781-6359
Edmonds:  425-673-8328
Issaquah:  425-313-4224
Additional Resources:

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