If you are a parent with a cancer diagnosis, one of the more difficult tasks you may face is telling your child you have cancer. While it may be difficult to talk to your son or daughter about your diagnosis, it may be the best thing you can do, says Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.
"Children are incredibly perceptive and can often sense when something is wrong or if the dynamic in the household has changed," says Garvey. "In my experience, when a child does not know what is wrong, that can be more anxiety-provoking than being informed about their parent's diagnosis and included in the process."
What to tell your child about your cancer diagnosis
"Many of the parents I work with find that communicating with their child about their cancer diagnosis helps the child prepare for the changes that are going to take place, whether it is in the parent's appearance or in the family's daily routine."
Start with the basic information and follow your child's lead if he or she has more questions. You may want to share:
What type of cancer you have.
Where the cancer is located in your body.
What type of treatment you will receive.
The changes they may see in you, whether it is a physical change after surgery or the fact that you need to go to bed earlier to get more rest during chemotherapy.
How your routine may change. For example, they may need to stay at a relative's house for a few nights after your surgery or their grandparent may start picking them up from school.
Tips for communicating with children of all ages
Garvey has some advice for communicating with children of all ages:
Young children (under age 8): "Use a book or communicate with them through play. For example, you can talk to them about your diagnosis while they are drawing or doing a puzzle."
Older children and teenagers: "Older kids can be trickier to communicate with. They are more aware of what is happening and your diagnosis can be scarier to them than it would be to a 5-year-old. Taking a car ride together can be a good way to engage in a conversation. You have space where you can be together, but you are not sitting face-to-face in a more formal setting. Use open-ended questions. If they feel like they are being grilled, teens and older kids will clam up. You can say, 'Tell me about what you are thinking.' They can then choose what they want to share." Finally, reassure your child that it is not their fault you have cancer.
Adult children: "The biggest thing I've noticed with adult children is that they want to get really involved with their parent's care. Leave space for that, but recognize it is okay to set boundaries in a kind and loving way," she says.
Empowering your child during your cancer treatment
There are several ways you can empower your child during your treatment process:
Allow him or her to be part of your recovery. Garvey cites an example from one of her clients: "Her son had been acting out at school while she was going through treatment. Despite her attempts to talk to him, his behavior did not improve. She was participating in PINK at Piedmont and learning more about nutrition, so she asked her son to help her come up with healthy meals as part of her survivorship lifestyle. They started cooking together and her son loved it. He wanted to be helpful and it encouraged him that this activity was helping his mom. Once he felt like he was contributing to making her feel better, he started doing better in school."
Create space for quality family time. Taking time for fun activities, such as a family movie or board game night, can reduce everyone's stress and encourage communication and bonding.
Encourage him or her to ask questions. Be honest in your responses. It is okay to say you don't know, just do your best to describe what to expect.
Give undivided attention when talking about your diagnosis. Minimize distractions, such as unloading the dishwasher or answering a phone call, when he or she is asking questions or expressing concerns.
Maintain a routine as much as possible. Routines can be comforting during a challenging experience. For example, if your child is staying at a relative's house, have him or her bring along a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
When to seek support
"It is normal for a child to have emotional outbursts or to behave in a way that seems odd," says Garvey. "However, if his or her behavior becomes extreme, find a resource such as a school guidance counselor or a family counselor."
Consider informing your child's teacher and school administration about your diagnosis as well.
"Your son or daughter is likely going to talk about your diagnosis at school anyway," she says. "It can be helpful if your child's teacher knows what is going on at home."
No one is a perfect parent
Coping with a family member's cancer diagnosis is difficult for everyone and can be especially hard for children.
"You know your child better than anyone else," says Garvey. "Have confidence in your relationship. Acknowledge that you were not a perfect parent before you had cancer and you are not going to be a perfect parent with cancer. Your child may have questions you do not expect, but as long as the lines of communication stay open, you are doing the right thing."
See more ways to strengthen your relationships.