How to Talk to Kids About Cancer

A cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. The urgent challenge of explaining cancer to children at any age can be overwhelming when the future is uncertain and you're still trying to get your own head around this "earthquake zone."

As soon as you use the words "kids" and "cancer" in the same sentence, you know you're in for a rough ride. Perhaps you (as the parent)have cancer, or maybe the child has been diagnosed. In either case, you need to explain and plan for the changes that are coming. It's critical to get your own brain in gear quickly so that you can help the children to cope.

A cancer diagnosis within the household or with a close family member—especially early on, before the prognosis is known—changes nearly every aspect of daily life. Emotions will be strained and personal family routines altered or sacrificed. For example, if all your time is consumed by an initial diagnosis, perhaps you don't have as much leisure time to spend with your kids.

Rather than overprotecting them, you'll want to communicate with the kids openly and frequently. This doesn't mean sharing every gory detail, but it does mean figuring out what amount of information is appropriate for each child's age, keeping in mind their level of maturity. To figure that out, try to remember and pay close attention to these two key points when involving children:

Be Honest and Open

Just as for adults, information helps reduce children's anxiety about what's happening. If you're feeling like you've lost control of your life, they will feel the same way. No matter their age, children sense changes in family members' moods and actions. They wonder what's happening, but they may be reluctant to ask, especially if they're young.

If faced with a void of information, children may fill it with their own imaginings and assume the worst—that they've done something wrong to cause this, that a parent or sibling is dying, that a loved one's cancer is contagious, and so on. By sharing what information you can, sustaining communication about how each of you is reacting to what's happening, and by being honest about what you don't yet know, you'll reinforce the kids' trust in you and their sense of security. In short, you'll help replace the sense of balance and predictability that cancer has taken away.

Focus On The New Normal, Not The Past

Normal goes away the moment you hear the C-word, so creating a "new normal" becomes a mental health priority, especially for children. To them, normal looks like predictability from one day to another. To forge the new normal, come up with new routines and special activities that compensate in part for what's been lost to cancer. Here are some ideas:

      If a close family member with cancer can't come over for Sunday dinner any more, you might want to create a portable meal that can go to wherever the patient is. Or, if the patient can't enjoy the mealtime, you can keep him company and replace mealtime interaction with watching a movie or TV sports event instead.

      Set aside time for new weekly or daily routines. Spend a half-hour every day to read something together, or plan that every Friday evening will be game night for the whole family. Children will feel there's time set aside that's cancer-free to appreciate their accomplishments and meet their needs.

      Have the child's friends visit regularly to ensure that they stay in tune with their social circle, even if active participation is limited. The support they get from friends will prove invaluable to the whole family.

In short, don't let cancer take away everything that gives your life structure and meaning. When you're facing the "new normal" with children, share enough information to reduce their anxiety and seek out new routines. Help them restore some sense of normal life and interactions with friends and relatives. You'll be glad you did, no matter the outcome cancer brings.