5 Things NOT to Do When You Talk to Your Kids About Cancer

father and daughter talking
Father and Daughter Talking

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is hard, but it’s perhaps hardest when you have young children or teens at home. Your children depend on you; like many parents with cancer, you may worry not just about how you’re going to break the news to your kids, but even about how much longer you may be able to be there for them.

No matter what your prognosis, it’s important that you talk to your kids about your cancer. They’ll figure out something is wrong anyway, and if they don’t know exactly what, their imaginations may fill in the blanks, resulting in even more fear, confusion, and anxiety than they would otherwise feel. It’s important to be honest, clear, and direct with your children. Don’t be too optimistic, but don’t burden them too much, either.

1. Don’t Gloss Over Your Diagnosis

If you’re wondering how to tell your child you have cancer, you may think that not using the word “cancer” might make the conversation easier. “I’ll just tell my kids I’m very sick,” you might say to yourself. “There’s no need to use the c-word…is there?”

In fact, there is. Young children may not be capable of fully understanding what cancer is, but they can probably understand more than you think. Naming your illness gives kids the specific information they need to keep their imaginations under control. Explain your cancer in an age appropriate manner. Use a doll to show kids where in your body the cancer is located.

2. Don’t Talk to the Kids When You’re Feeling Sick or Emotional

While it may not always be possible to stay completely calm when talking to your kids about cancer, you want to try your best to do so. Your kids will take their cues from you regarding how to feel about the situation. Give yourself some time to get over the initial emotional shock of the diagnosis. Choose a time when you’re not struggling with chemotherapy side effects or otherwise feeling ill. Practice what you’re going to say beforehand.

3. Don’t Talk to the Kids Before You’ve Got a Prognosis

Many parents want to tell their kids about their cancer diagnosis right away, and that’s understandable. But your kids will have questions, and one of those questions might be, “Are you going to die?” You can’t answer that question until you have a prognosis.

Even if you can’t reassure your children that doctors think they can cure your cancer, you should try to stay positive when talking about your prognosis. Reassure children that you and your doctors are doing everything you can to fight the cancer.

If your prognosis is less than favorable, you’re going to want to prepare kids for the possibility that you might not get better. You may want to talk to a child psychologist, a chaplain, or another professional about what to say during this conversation. Young children may not understand that death is forever, so avoid using euphemistic language or describing death as a form of sleep. This might confuse or frighten kids.

father and son talking
Father and Son Talking

4. Don’t Give the Kids Too Much Responsibility

When you’re going through cancer treatment, you may need some additional help in the house. It’s okay to ask kids to pick up a few extra chores — they will probably want to help. But it’s important not to overburden kids with too much responsibility.

Take care that any extra chores are age-appropriate. Have kids share the work to complete larger tasks, like cleaning up after dinner. Have older kids and teens help with homework or babysitting while younger kids help with tasks like picking up the house or folding laundry. Thank your kids for their contributions to the family, and offer rewards and incentives. Make sure each child still has plenty of time to play, relax, socialize with friends, finish school assignments, and participate in extracurricular activities.

5. Don’t Be Too Optimistic

While you should make sure children know that they will be cared for, you shouldn’t be too optimistic about the realities of your treatment or prognosis. If you tell the kids that you’re going to be okay and then you’re not okay, they’re going to be more upset than they would be if you had acknowledged that possibility from the beginning. Similarly, you should make sure kids know about the possibility of cancer side effects. Reassure them that other adults will be there to take care of them even if you can’t.

It’s never easy to talk to your kids about your cancer diagnosis, but it’s the only way to make sure your kids get accurate information and answers to their questions. Once you know what your prognosis is, sit down with your kids and talk to them about your health. They deserve to hear it from you.

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