Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Talking with children about cancer


blog talking with children

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, there is inevitably a disruption in family life as well as the children’s daily routine. The way they deal with the emotions that come along with cancer will often depend on the child’s age and development.

“The most important thing for children to know while a parent is going through cancer treatment is that they are loved and will be cared for,” says Heather Swick, mind-body therapist at our hospital near Chicago.

How to help a child cope when a parent has cancer

Dr. David Wakefield, psychologist at our hospital in Tulsa, recommends making communication with a child a priority. Make sure you not only talk about cancer, but about other things going on in the child’s life as well:

  • Open the door for communication to occur. This will help them feel more comfortable and in the know.
  • Let your kids ask questions. They may overhear you talking to others, and if they aren’t able to ask about what they’ve heard, they may invent their own explanations.
  • Take every opportunity to communicate. Always give them accurate information they will understand.
  • Be honest and maintain trust. It is ok if you don’t know the answer to their questions. It can be something you discover together.
  • Explain how cancer may affect you or them. Prepare them for changes that might occur, such as hair loss or loss of energy. Assure them that their needs will still be met despite these changes.
  • Ask them what they know. You may assume younger children don’t have a good grasp on what cancer is, but you may be surprised as to how much they have picked up. This also allows you to clear up misinformation they may have learned from others.
  • Show your love and affection for them.  Let them know that their needs are still very important to you. Explain that your health may have changed, but your love hasn’t.
  • Be prepared to listen to your child’s concerns and emotions. And in turn, express your feelings with them. This models that it is ok to talk about how you feel.
  • Consider having your child speak with a counselor, which can be a support system for them as you go through treatment.
  • Reassure your children that they did not cause your cancer. Explain that sometimes events happen in life that we cannot explain.

Communicate with your children’s teachers and school counselors about your medical condition. They will be able to support them at school and also inform you if your child shows signs of significant changes in behavior or mood.

Read more about how cancer affects the family dynamic in our November newsletter.