When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, my child was five. At the time, I barely understood what was happening and had to figure out a way to explain it to my child! I knew he picked up on the stress we were all feeling, and I wanted to make sure he understood. So we kept it simple. We explained that Dad had an illness and that the medicine (chemo) he needed to take would make him feel really bad.
Throughout the five years my husband battled cancer until he passed away, we were honest with our growing child. We didn’t get into the details, but we let him know what was happening and what it could mean. He essentially grew up with this knowledge.
Talking to children of any age about their parent’s life-threatening illness is difficult. It is natural to want to protect our children from hurt, and we might be tempted to keep silent or sugarcoat the truth. But, like in all relationships, honesty is the foundation of trust. Kids are smarter than we think and will pick up on the emotions we are feeling. If they don’t understand what is happening, the confusion can be even more frightening. That said, keep reading for my best tips and advice about talking to children about cancer.
What You Believe Matters
No matter the age, talking to your children about cancer can be difficult. And like all difficult conversations, your thoughts and beliefs about your children will influence how you tell them and treat them as they adjust to the news. If you have limiting beliefs like, “They are fragile. They can’t handle it. It’s too much,” you will unconsciously communicate those beliefs. Even if you don’t ever say those words, they will pick up on it and start believing those limitations. On the other hand, if you believe they are strong, safe, and supported, they will pick up on that message as well. Decide what you want to believe about your kids and their ability to cope. Regardless of what they have shown you, I would encourage you to decide to believe in their inner strength!
Children Are Resilient
As a parent, it is instinctual to try to protect your children from the pains of life. This desire is especially strong when they are young but often persists even when our children become adults. The problem is you can’t protect them from experiencing pain or hurt in life. And when you try to protect them, you don’t allow them to develop the skills needed to cope with life’s difficulties. Cancer presents an opportunity to help guide your children to develop the skills they need to cope with this new challenge in their life.
Children do have the ability to experience hardship and get through it. This is especially true if you are there to help them in the process. This is how resilience is taught. It is not sheltering our children from life’s difficulties but showing them that life difficulties can be weathered and they will still be ok. Read Why Resilience Is Important.
How to Explain Cancer to Your Child
Talking to a younger child about cancer can feel overwhelming. You might worry about scaring them or overwhelming them with information. But it’s important to remember that kids are often more resilient than we give them credit for. They can handle tough news as long as it’s presented in an age-appropriate way. There is a great free booklet called Talking To Kids About Cancer from the Cancer Council. I highly recommend giving it a read, as it covers all stages of cancer and recommendations for specific ages. Below, I have pulled out a few tips that apply to all ages.
1. Be Honest
It may be tempting to try to avoid telling your kids what is going on, especially when you are struggling to come to terms with the news yourself. However, honesty is the foundation of trust in all relationships. Children will often pick up on your anxiety and stress. If they don’t know what is going on, it can be confusing and even frightening. And there is always the chance that they hear the news from someone else. Children are observant. No matter how hard you try to hide a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. You want to give your children a chance to adjust to the news and space to ask questions and feel the emotions that arise. They can’t do this if they don’t know what is happening.
2. Tell Them What to Expect
You want to inform your children at each stage of your partner’s cancer. Just like you, your kids will want to know what to expect as much as possible. Even when you don’t know exactly, you can share that as well. “Dad is getting some tests done so the doctors can learn more about his illness.” Or, “The doctors are giving mom a treatment that will probably make her feel bad for several days.” Kids want to understand what they are sensing and seeing. Keeping them informed will keep them from wondering or jumping to the wrong conclusions.
3. Encourage Them to Ask Questions
Let them know they can always come to you with any questions or concerns. Reassure them that there’s no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to cancer. You don’t have to have all the answers, and it’s OK to say you don’t know. Encourage open communication, so they feel comfortable asking anything they want to know. Kids, especially the older they are, need a chance to process what is happening just like you do.
4. Show Them Love
A cancer diagnosis can be a reminder of the importance of love and connection for all members of your family. Your children may need extra love at this time. And love can look like many different things. Sometimes it may be holding their hand. Other times, it may be letting them know you are there. For younger kids, it may mean more hugs or time together. A good question to ask yourself is, “How can I show my kids love?” And trust the answer you come up with.
5. Model Courage
Courage does not mean you aren’t afraid. Courage does not mean you don’t get scared or cry. Courage means you show those emotions and still keep going. A cancer diagnosis can be a time to model to children that emotions like fear and sadness are OK to feel. In fact, you can feel them and still be strong and hopeful. Your instinct as a parent will be to protect your children and pretend everything will be fine. However, that shows them that it’s not OK to be scared or sad and that they should hide or bury those emotions. They need to know it’s OK to feel them and allow them.
How to Explain Cancer to Your Adult Child
Talking to your adult children about cancer can also be difficult, but not impossible. With a little thought and preparation, you can have a productive and supportive conversation with your older or adult children about their parent’s cancer. Remember that your beliefs about your kids’ ability to handle this news matter. Regardless of what they’ve demonstrated about their emotional maturity and strength, decide to believe in them, and they will probably surprise you.
1. Be Open and Honest
First, it’s important to remember that your adult children are already adults, so they can handle more information than you might think. Whatever the news is, they need a chance to adjust to it just like you do. Remember that honesty is the foundation of trust in all relationships. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t have all the answers, but let them know you’re there for them and will support them however you can.
It’s also OK to let them see your emotions. You might be tempted to pretend that everything is OK, but kids of all ages will pick up on what you are not telling them. Without knowing, they are left to wonder, which can be even more frightening. When you show that you are sad, you also show them that these emotions are OK. People who are not allowed to express their emotions often act out later in much unhealthier ways.
2. Believe in Their Strength
What you believe about your adult children and their ability to cope with this news matters. If you believe they can’t handle it or that it will devastate them, they will pick up on that unspoken message. On the other hand, there are few things more powerful than when someone else believes in you even more than you do yourself. Decide to believe that no matter what you have thought before about your children–no matter their history–they will be OK. When you believe that about them, maybe even before they believe it, they will pick up on your confidence. You may even remind them of times when something was really difficult, and they got through it. We all benefit when reminded of our own strength.
3. Let Them Have Their Own Emotional Journey
Be willing to let your children have their own emotional journey. Each person will respond in their own way, and that is fine. One child may appear to be fine while another is freaking out. All of it is OK. Don’t judge their journey or expect it to go a certain way. You can’t control their emotions, nor is it your responsibility. You can, however, show that this is hard, AND you can get through it. A serious diagnosis can be a time for greater connection and love. It can be a time when everyone becomes more clear about the things in their life that truly matter.
4. Offer Resources and Support
If you have access to support groups, counseling, or coaching, let them know. Encourage them to talk to you, their own partner, or a close friend. Your kids need to process and work through all the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing. The more they do this in a healthy way, the less likely they will turn to unhealthy coping methods.
There is no perfect way to navigate this time. Be open to whatever experience you and your kids are having. Let it be messy and hard. You all are stronger than you think, and you will get through it!
Find Support for Yourself While You Support Your Family
You hold a lot of weight and responsibilities on your shoulders when your partner has cancer. You want to make sure your spouse is taken care of, and you also want to be there for your children and help them process the diagnosis. That’s a lot to handle, and you don’t have to do it alone. You can find support for yourself when your spouse has cancer by working with a caregiver coach. I offer multiple ways to journey together and help you navigate this time in your life. Contact me today to learn more!