Talking with your Child about Cancer and Treatment

Many parents want to protect their children by not telling them any information they think might be frightening. In truth, the world is scarier for children when they do not know what is happening to and around them.

Often parents have a hard time telling their child about cancer. From years of experience, we know that not telling your child the truth can be harmful.

Children quickly sense when something is wrong and can react by feeling lonely and separated from family and friends. Children often imagine that things are worse than they are.
The benefits of talking with your child about cancer and its treatment allows your child to :

  • Build trust in both you and the health-care team.
  • Know what to expect and avoid filling in gaps with false ideas about cancer and cancer treatment.
  • Children fill in gaps of information with their imagination. Honest information helps correct any false ideas about cancer and cancer treatment.
  • Understand the importance of doing some things, for instance: taking medicines, coming to the hospital.
  • Have a sense of control during times when your child fels things are out of control.
  • Be better helped by you to get through difficult situations.

Parents should consider their child's age when choosing the words that are used to talk about what cancer is and how it is treated. Our social worker team can help you find ways to explain the diagnosis and treatment. The child life specialist may use coloring books, teaching dolls, medical play items, and other materials to help your child understand procedures. Keep in mind that children learn from doing, seeing and hearing things over and over and you may need to tell your child about cancer more than once.

We encourage you to try to maintain as much “normalcy” as possible for your child.

Keeping routines and activities as predictable as possible is important for the entire family. It is also critical to maintain the same family rules and discipline that existed before the cancer diagnosis. Your child will receive a lot of extra attention (some may be unwanted) from well-meaning friends, relatives, and even strangers. It is all too easy for parents to not discipline a sick child, but that approach is not what your child needs or wants. Now more than ever, they need to know that they can depend on their parents for structure and discipline at such a scary and confusing time.

A cancer diagnosis during adolescence is unique in that, just when young people naturally start to foster their identity and independence, they once again become very dependent upon their parents. Many teens have described that it is frustrating to lose the independence they have worked so hard to achieve. Parents also say that it’s challenging to balance their need as parents to protect their child, while also allow their child to maintain their normal development in eventually becoming self-sufficient. If you are having trouble communicating with your child or they are struggling, please ask our social work team for help.