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Talking to children about cancer: Do I have to tell my kids?

First of seven articles in a series on how to talk to your children about cancer.

People often tell me that after hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer,” the first thing they wonder is, “What am I going to tell my kids?” Parent patients are so concerned about their children that they barely give themselves the opportunity to process the diagnosis.

The questions start swirling around their mind, and the first one is often Do I have to tell the kids, or is it better to just let them think that everything is okay?”

Do you really need to tell your kids about your cancer?

In short, the answer is, yes.

If you had been feeling poorly prior to the diagnosis, I can guarantee you that your children already have worries. Even if you haven’t been experiencing symptoms, they will definitely know that something is up once you start treatment.

Kids are very aware of changes at home. Leaving them in the dark allows them lots of time to come up with their own ideas about what is happening. These can often be much worse than what is actually taking place.

They may overhear phone conversations or voicemails, notice whispering and even read emails. They may search for information on the internet. Children are like little detectives — they will seek out the information they need when no one is offering it to them.

I encourage you to offer your children open and honest communication, as soon as you are diagnosed. It will help them understand why things have been different or will be different in the future, and allow them to feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their feelings.

Remember that open and honest doesn’t mean you have to give them all the details. It means that you’ll provide accurate, age-appropriate information related to your illness and treatment.

Anxious about having this conversation with your kids? Here’s what to expect and what you should — and shouldn’t — say to your child.

This post was contributed by Cinda McDonald, a Certified Child Life specialist with the Supportive and Palliative care team at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

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Talking to children about cancer: Do I have to tell my kids?