This article was written for all those out there who are struggling with how to tell your young children or grandchildren about your cancer diagnosis. Our team has scoured the resources out there to try and answer some pressing questions and offer some advice on how to involve your young ones in your journey.
Should you tell them at all? Of course everyone’s approach and relationship is different; however, the general trend out there points to YES...for a number of reasons. Most parents want to protect their children from information that may hurt their feelings. However, children have a keen sense of change and are oftentimes able to detect when something is wrong. This can be troubling for children if left silent. Issues of trust may arise if a child hears of their parents diagnosis from someone else. Hearing sensitive news second hand is very troubling and may be best avoided by tackling the situation with open lines of communication and honesty.
When do I tell them? It is important to have all of the information yourself first. If you have as much information as possible, you will be better prepared to put the terms in their language, and answer any questions they have. Children understand best when you discuss topics from a whole-picture perspective. If you are only equipped to discuss little pieces, the communication may be hindered.
What do I tell them? It is critical to lay out your conversation with age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts. You may want to first clarify with your child what cancer is. You can explain the physical process of how cancer develops by saying something like, “There are millions of little units called cells in your body. Some of Mommy’s (Daddy’s, Grandma’s, etc.) cells got sick, which is making her sick.” You should then inform your child about the type of cancer you are, treatment, side effects, etc. This lays out the groundwork so that throughout your journey, you and your child can have open lines of communication.
All children need the following basic information:
- The name of the cancer, such as breast cancer or lymphoma
- The part of the body where the cancer is
- How it will be treated
- How their own lives will be affected
It is also important to insure them that cancer is not contagious, and it is not their fault.
How will they react? Some children will engage in a two-way conversation and ask many questions. Other parents may find the conversation to be one-sided. This may elude to the way your child processes information. This is not cause for alarm, it is very normal, but is a good opportunity to reiterate to your child that they can talk to you about anything and ask any questions they may have.
Some common questions your child may ask are:
- Are you going to die?
- Will I get cancer too when I grow up?
- Will your hair fall out?
- Do I have to tell my friends?
- Why did you get cancer?
- When will your cancer go away?
- What tools can help me?
Resources have been developed to help you communicate with your child about this journey in your life. At Compassionate Beauty, we offer Kimmie Dolls to our clients, which help demonstrate the physical side effect of chemotherapy – hair loss. “The doll and book help explain hair loss from chemotherapy through play therapy, an effective avenue to teach children.” This can help prepare your child for the physical changes that their parent will go through during their treatment. Some children’s books have been written with the purpose of communicating cancer to your children. Follow this link to watch an inspiration video of how one young mother approached her journey and the book, Nowhere Hair, she authored to help others and their children. Seek support. Some children may need additional support during this difficult time to help express their feelings. A trusted friend of family member may provide a second ear. Other good resources for you may include having a conversation with the school guidance counsellor or a child psychologist.
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