How do you talk to kids about cancer?
It’s not always easy to talk to kids about cancer, especially when their mom or dad is fighting it, but it is important. Some of the reasons they keep their thoughts to themselves may surprise you.
The Squeaky Wheel
As kids grow, they become more aware that their parents have fears and feelings of their own. When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, kids will try to ease their mom and dad’s stress by keeping their own worries to themselves. It’s their way of protecting their parents.
Unfortunately, this can cause a child’s imagination to run wild. They can end up thinking things are even worse than they are. And, that’s hard to do when you are dealing with cancer.
A friend of ours has a perfect phrase for this. He calls it horribleizing. We horribleize things when we don’t have all the facts and our mind leaps to the worst possible outcome. Adults are great at this. Kids are even better!
The best way you can prevent this is by communicating well with your child. That doesn’t mean you have to tell them all the details. In fact, you shouldn’t. But, you do need to give them the information they want in honest, but broad terms. How do we do that when they aren’t expressing their concerns?
You might be surprised by how easy it can be to talk to kids about cancer.
- Turn off the TV and other distractions. Talk to your child when it’s just the two of you. They will be far more likely to let down their guard when they don’t feel like a sibling will laugh at them or another parent will get upset. If you need to, take them out for lunch. People talk when they eat. It’s their social instinct. It’s much easier to talk to kids about cancer while eating an ice cream sundae.
- Start by asking, “What kind of feelings/thoughts are you having about this?” or, “Are you feeling a little scared?”
- When talking to your children, avoid giving them a worst-case scenario because they will grab it every time. For example, you wouldn’t ask your child, “Are you afraid that I’m going to die?” While they likely are, it’s far better to bring it out in a gentler way, such as asking, “What kind of things are you afraid of?”
- Ask your child what questions they have. This is open-ended, but still, requires an answer.
- The conversation doesn’t need to end after you answer one question. Your child might just be starting to open up to you. Follow up by asking, “Do you have any other questions?”
- Medical play is a great way to talk to kids about cancer. It alleviates the fear of the unknown, by introducing some of the tools doctors use that might seem frightening at first.
Here are some more tips for finding out what’s on their mind:
- You might worry that when you talk to kids about cancer, it will make them think about frightening things. The truth is, they’re already thinking these things. Talking will bring their ideas and fears to the surface where you can examine them in the open, together.
- Say, “I recently read that some children feel . What you think about that?” I did this once and was amazed by the answers my children gave me. For the first time, I learned many of their fears. It helped me to communicate with them and be sensitive to the things they felt most deeply.
- Don’t push. Let them tell you what’s on their mind in a way and time that is comfortable for them.
- Sometimes, doing an activity like coloring helps kids to open up. Their conscious mind in concentrating on the relaxing activity, allowing their subconscious thoughts to come to the surface. Make this a light conversation from which you can glean their thoughts about what’s happening.
Often, once a child knows about their parent’s diagnosis, each appointment will bring a measure of anxiety. This can be a teachable moment with your child. You can start by talking about your own anxieties, in a way that can encourage a calm, soothing conversation. Validating your child’s feelings can be so empowering for them. When they’re allowed to express them, you’re essentially saying, “Yes I’m sure you’re worried and that’s okay. I’m worried too.”
Here are some other things you can say
“Today I’m going in for a special test that will let the doctors know how I’m doing. I’m wondering if you might have any concerns about this.”
“I know that I’m a little worried, so I thought you might be worried too. Should we talk about our fears and worries?”
“I’m going to go to the doctor to put together a plan. We’ll figure this out together. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
“We’re walking side-by-side in this. I want to take care of you too”
This can be very reassuring for your child. It will often ease their concerns since they can trust that you won’t keep them in the dark. They can, in a sense, put their fears on a shelf. They’re still there, but they’re in their place.
What to Avoid
The biggest thing you’ll want to avoid are the curt, dismissive assurances that people often give.
Some examples of phrases to avoid are:
“Your Mom will get better soon.”
“Don’t worry everything will be all right.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.”
What Not to Avoid
No parent wants to have this difficult conversation with their children. It can be tempting to try to brush the whole thing off as no big deal. Whatever you do: Avoid avoiding.
It’s also HOW you say it
People tend to speak rapidly when they’re nervous. They get repetitive when they feel anxious. “Fast paced, repetitive responses never dig into the nitty-gritty of the truth and can make a child feel completely dismissed. Dismissive comments reinforce the idea that cancer is taboo and that we shouldn’t talk about it.
“This can leave them thinking, “I shouldn’t ask my mom and dad questions. I should protect them. can be a role reversal, where the mom and dad want to protect their children and the children want to protect their mom and dad.” (Melissa Turgeon)
A Better Way
Instead, a healthier way to talk to kids about cancer is to ask, “How much do you want to know? Do you want to know it all, or are you the type of kid that just wants the facts?” Asking this question, you’ll hear from the child what they want to know. “You can ask the child who wants to know everything, “Do you want to come to the clinic appointment with me?” Sometimes your child will say, “No, just give me the basic facts of what is going on.” Other times they’ll say, “I’m going to be a doctor when I get older.”
I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since my husband, Dan was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness.
My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com