I have cancer. How do I tell my kids?
In a child’s mind – the word cancer isn’t necessarily a scary word. Don’t scare them with your own fear.
When Amie Lands was diagnosed with aggressive Head & Neck cancer, her boys were only six and two. Throughout her battle, Amie, a Certified Grief Coach, had good and bad days of trying to simply be mom. Through her journey, she learned a lot that she shares with other families about talking to children and allowing the emotions to lead and shape the conversations.
This article is created from personal experiences – please seek medical help if you feel your child is overwhelmed or having difficulty coping.
- Kids don’t have a foundation for cancer fear. Lead with words they understand.
Example of what you might say: I am sick and the sickness is called cancer. Cancer is something inside my body and the doctors and I are going to work on getting it out so I won’t be sick anymore.
“It’s important to find a balance between being honest with your child and providing age appropriate information while keeping in mind how scary this time is likely to be for them," says Kelly Corbitt, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Pennsylvania. “Remember this is not the time to try to “fix" anything, or encourage them to “look on the bright side" of the issue or news. Even if it seems obvious to you, telling your child that the illness and this situation is not their fault can make a huge impact as they navigate this information."
- Before jumping into the conversation, prepare your own thoughts and emotions first.
- Buy age appropriate books for your children to help them understand other people have been through this too.
- Have other loved ones around they trust
- Use age appropriate language
- Mommy might be super sleepy sometimes but still wants to cuddle.
- Mommy might look different (from losing my hair) but it means the medicine is doing its job
- It’s ok to sit with mommy
- Some days will be great, and some days mommy might need to rest more.
“We only welcomed people into our home who the kids were really comfortable with approaching it as fun and special when grandma comes to pick you up at school," said Amie.
- Normalcy can be comforting – to everyone.
- Keeping the kids schedules and activities going provides a sense of structure in a world disrupted.
- If you can’t physically be the one driving them and picking them up, have the other parent or trusted family member step in.
- Have those close to them provide fun games and activities to ensure joyful experiences
“I had the doctors and nurses taking care of me, I needed the focus to be in keeping the kids having a sense of normalcy. There are people in your life who want to – and are willing to do anything. Select precise things for them to do such as Tuesday afternoons with William, and make sure it’s always committed," said Amie.
- Encourage them to ask questions.
- Remember to always follow their instincts – if they seem concerned, recognize with them their feelings and reassure them as best you can.
- You won’t have all the answers and that’s ok to tell them, but assure them there is a plan of action in place.
- Resilience Modeling – we don’t always need to go to the worst case scenario.
- Take their cues – when they want to talk, talk – when they don’t, put on a movie and give a good snuggle.
- Talking about the hard stuff is hard. Sometimes small doses “I had the books ready to go, I had my treatment plan in place, I thought I was ready to dive into the conversation with my son – but when we started, I was so surprised by how nonchalant he was with it all. He wasn’t afraid and I took that cue throughout my treatment," said Amie.
Communicate with your child’s school/counselors and caregivers
- Letting those who are around your child know what’s going on allows them to help you watch for any concerning behaviors that might need to be addressed.
- Telling people how you are speaking to your child, what you are sharing, and your goals for them, helps bring everyone onto the same page.
Children can express their feelings in many different ways – it’s important when there is stress within our homes, we look for signs in which children might need more professional help.
When to seek professional support
We asked Kelly Corbitt, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Bucks County, PA, who provides therapeutic support and guidance to children, teens, adults and families facing challenges related to mental health, life stressors, trauma, and loss, to share some of her insight for our readers about how to know when to seek help for your child.
What are some warning signs for parents when a child is having difficulty coping with stress at home?
There are many signs which can indicate struggles that a child may be having due to stress at home. These can include withdrawal, isolation and shutting down or more conflict and irritability than is typical for them with siblings and parents. Changes in sleep patterns, or struggles falling asleep, may also be indicators of difficulty coping with a stressful situation, as are regressive behaviors such as returning to old patterns or returning to behaviors of a previous developmental stage. Children may demonstrate these indicators in the home environment and not elsewhere, while others may show signs of struggle in other domains; watch for academic struggles, acting out behaviors in school and extracurriculars, or a lack of interest in activities that are typically fulfilling for them.
- How do you approach a young child when you see their anxiety elevating?
It’s really important for children to feel understood, particularly when they are struggling with intense emotions like anxiety and fear. These feelings can make us adults feel uncomfortable, so it’s helpful to keep in mind a few pointers when relating to children struggling in this way: First, remember that a loving, listening presence is often more important than solving or trying to fix something they are upset about. Second, be curious and don’t assume you know what they are feeling; demonstrate your willingness to try to understand using language that inquires about their experience, rather than words that attempt to define it for them or tell them why they “shouldn’t" be feeling this way. Lastly, keep in mind that children need to know that their feelings matter and are valid, because ultimately this sends a message to them that they matter and that they are valid and have worth.
- When you have to deliver some difficult news to a child but don’t want to scare them – do you have any advice?
It’s never easy to approach a child with news that you know will be upsetting to them and difficult to process, but keeping a few pointers in mind may help you navigate this challenging terrain. As much as you’re able, controlling the environment to be a familiar, trusted space and sharing the news during a time when there are minimal other environmental stressors and distractions can be very helpful. Also, it’s beneficial if you can begin to process your feelings first, so that you can remain in and present for your child’s needs during this time. While it’s ok to show emotions (we want children to know it’s safe to have big feelings), we still want them to trust that you as the adult can be the safe space to “hold" the feelings they are currently struggling with. Finally, allow them to ask questions, understanding that they may have more as time goes on, as well as more feelings to process and express.
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