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How to talk to children about cancer

Of course, many people diagnosed with cancer have children who are grown up. But many will have other children in their lives, such as nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great grandchildren, godchildren or the children of friends.

As children get older they are usually able to understand more and more about illness and treatment. But a child's age is only a general guide to what they may understand. A 5 year old may understand some things more easily than an 8 year old – it depends on the child.

Being open and honest is almost always the best way with children.

Listen to their fears and

  • Try to understand that naughty or unusual behaviour may be their way of showing how upset they are
  • Give them small pieces of news, gradually building up a picture of your illness
  • Don't keep secrets because even small children can guess when something is wrong
  • Remember that their fears of what might happen are likely to be far worse than the real situation
  • Remember that uncertainty or not knowing may be harder for them to cope with than the truth

All adults, particularly parents, want to protect children from the pain of knowing that someone they care about is ill. But children can usually pick up when something is seriously wrong even if they are not told directly and they then worry.

Children quickly pick up on atmospheres and notice unusual comings and goings. Not talking about what is happening may leave them feeling left out, not cared for, and alone with their fears and fantasies. They may feel more included if you ask them to help with small tasks. But try not to be offended if they don't want to help.

Because it is hard to talk to children about things that are also painful for you it may help to ask your doctor, nurse or counsellor

  • For advice on what to say
  • To take part in a meeting with the children to help answer their questions

It may help if you remember

  • To take your time
  • To go step by step
  • To say "I don't know" to questions for which you don't know the answer
  • To assure children that they will still be loved and cared for, whatever happens
  • Not to tell them everything at once
 

What to tell children

It is not easy to decide what to tell them, especially if they are small. Very little children don't really understand about illness. On the whole they

  • Are mainly interested in what is going on at the moment
  • Only need simple explanations
  • Need to have these explanations repeated

But it's a good idea to explain simply why someone close to them is feeling poorly today. Parents will need to think about what they need to know before they visit someone who is having treatment or recovering. It may be hard for a young child to understand why they shouldn't climb all over Grandad today if they haven't been warned in advance.

If the children are a bit older, you could explain cancer to them by talking about good and bad cells. You might want to look at the cells and cancer section. This isn't written for children, but reading parts of it may help you to understand and explain it better yourself. How much you go into it really does depend on the individual child's understanding and interest. Usually, it is best to keep things as simple as you can.

 

Common children's misunderstandings about cancer

Many children need reassuring regularly that your illness is not their fault. Whether they show it or not, children

  • Often feel in some way to blame
  • May feel guilty for a long time

They might think it is their fault that you are ill because they haven't behaved well enough or because they were once cross with you, for example.

Teenagers can also find it hard to cope with cancer in the family. Just when they want to get away and become independent, they feel that they ought to be at home. This can make them feel guilty too.

 

Relating to school

If the child is at school it is helpful for their parent to have a quiet word with their class teacher if someone close to them is ill. If you do this, remember to let the teacher know how much information you want other people to have. The parent could also ask the child's teacher to let them know if the child's behaviour changes in some way. Children may become withdrawn or 'act up' if they are upset.

 

Children's books about cancer

There are lots of books about illness and cancer for you to read with children or for older children to read for themselves. Books can help you to feel less alone and more in control. There are books and booklets about talking to children, some of which are free. 

The National Cancer Institute in the USA have a booklet available online called When your parent has cancer: A guide for teens. It covers what cancer is and has some information about treatment. You may find some helpful explanations in it that you can use when talking to children. Older children could read this themselves.

 

Talking to other people

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, you can phone the Cancer research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Or you can look at our list of general cancer organisations to find people who can help or who can put you in touch with a cancer support group. You can also look at our page of counselling organisations. To find out more about counselling look in the counselling section.

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Updated: 9 November 2012