By Kelly Muccino, Connecticut Children’s Certified Child Life Specialist

When a family faces a cancer diagnosis, life changes. What does today look like? What about tomorrow? This begs another question for many parents and caregivers: how do you talk to kids about cancer?

We called upon Connecticut Children’s Child Life team – experts in providing children with coping strategies during challenging situations – for ideas. This is Part 1 of the How to Talk to Kids About Cancer blog series.

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Why is it best to have an open discussion with your kids about cancer?

Talking about cancer can feel scary and be overwhelming for parents. Many parents worry that talking to their child about cancer may scare or burden their child, and they feel it’s their duty as a parent to protect them. It’s common for parents to feel this way when approaching such an emotionally charged subject.

However, research shows that when parents have an open conversation with their child about cancer, children cope better. Here are some other reasons to have an open conversation about cancer with your child:

  • Good communication with your child helps them feel like a valued member of your family and allows them to maintain trust in your relationship.
  • Children have vivid imaginations and when information is withheld, they may create an idea that’s worse than reality. For example, children may feel responsible for causing cancer – experience shows that this guilt often goes unrecognized.
  • By accident, children may hear about their loved one’s cancer from someone else. It’s best if they hear about it from their parents first. This provides parents with the space to balance hope with reality.
  • Keeping a cancer diagnosis as a secret often places a large burden on the parent and the child. Child are adept at sensing familial tension. Many families express a sense of relief after addressing the “cancer in the room.”

>Related: Growing Resilient: What Your Child Needs to Get Through Tough Times 

When it’s time to have the conversation, check in with yourself first.

You can prepare for talking to your child about cancer by grounding yourself in the present moment and thinking of ways to approach the conversation. Ask yourself the following:

  • How am I feeling emotionally? If you are feeling upset or overwhelmed, defer the conversation until you’ve had time to recharge. Make sure you’re in a safe place emotionally where you can hold space for your child’s feelings and questions.

>Related: How to Manage Negative Emotions When Your Child is Watching 

On the other hand, it is normal and healthy to express emotion when talking to your children about cancer. Parents often worry about crying in front of their children. If your child sees you crying, try saying something such as “I’m crying because I feel sad that (person’s name) is in the hospital and I miss them. When I’m sad, it helps me to cry.” This normalizes crying as a healthy and acceptable emotion. It also models how to name emotions and how to advocate for coping needs.

  • What do I want to say? Start by getting a pulse on what your child knows already. Kids often know more than we give them credit. Start with “What is your understanding about what’s been going on with (person’s name)?” This can often be a good starting point for steering the conversation to where the child needs the conversation to go.Consider how your child learns best. Would it be helpful to use visuals? Engage them in a hands-on activity? Begin by reading a children’s book?
    Take time to plan what you’ll say. Some parents find it helpful to role-play the conversation with a partner or professional. You don’t need a script, but it’s important to prepare yourself for how your child may react and what questions they may ask.Make sure you use correct terms like “cancer” and identify how it’s being treated. Stay tuned for part 2 of the series for help explaining cancer terms.
    Ask the child what they know about cancer. This allows space to address the child’s misconceptions and focus on the topics that are important to them.
    You don’t have to discuss everything all at once. You may be thinking, “There are things about this diagnosis I can’t even wrap my mind around, how will my child be able to hold that much information?” Your child does not need to know every detail or scenario about the diagnosis. What they need most is to know that cancer is a subject they are safe to talk to you about when questions arise.
  • Who do I want to join me? Your partner or spouse? A friend?  A trained professional? Do you prefer to take the lead on your own?
  • Where and when do I want to talk? Find time when you will be uninterrupted. Try to avoid having the conversation before bedtime, or when the child is feeling sick or overly tired. In a similar manner, avoid having conversations in the child’s bedroom – this keeps their bedroom a safe space.Turn off all electronic devices and minimize distractions during this time. Some families find it helpful to talk to their child while going on a family walk or while cooking dinner together. You know what’s best for your family.
  • What do I know? What don’t I know? It’s normal not to have all the answers. Make a note about what you do know about the cancer diagnosis and treatment and what you plan to ask the doctor in case your child is old enough to ask these questions.You might respond to questions you can’t answer by saying something like, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I’ll work on finding out for you. Why don’t we work together on writing down questions we have in this notebook, and I can bring it to the hospital the next time I go.” One question parents are often afraid of answering is, “Are they going to die?” If your child asks this question, take a breath. Take an honest and hopeful approach by saying something like “The doctors are using the very best medicine to get rid of (person’s name)’s cancer. We are hopeful that he/she will get better. If something changes, we will make sure you know what is happening.”
    You do not have to talk about everything in one conversation. Expect many conversations to happen naturally, over time.

No matter the situation, take care of yourself

You can’t pour from an empty bucket.

Carve out respite days for yourself. Don’t hesitate to ask friends and family to help out – they want to. Asking for help with household chores (cleaning the house, doing a load of dishes, grocery shopping, etc.) can take something off your plate and gives your friends a role in helping your family.

>Related: 8 Mental Health Tips for Parents

Stay tuned for Part 2: Talking to Your Child About Their Own Cancer Diagnosis.