Being a parent and having cancer often causes a lot of worry. It can be very difficult to find the right way to support your children. Children of different ages will cope with their parent having cancer in slightly different ways. It might help to know there is no right way to talk to children and teenagers about cancer. Being honest with them is the most important thing.
Talking to children about cancer can be very difficult and upsetting. Adults sometimes try to protect children from such a situation by not discussing it with them. But even if adults don't tell them openly about what is happening, they will inevitably know when something is seriously wrong. Involving children and letting them know what is happening generally helps them cope better with a parent's illness.
There are booklets with some useful information about what to tell children when an adult has cancer and how children cope. Examples include:
- Talking to children when an adult has cancer
- Talking to children about cancer
Stages of children's development
Young children may not be emotionally developed enough to express their real feelings in words. Or they might not feel comfortable about being in an unfamiliar group situation. Young children often express their feelings through play or their mood rather than in words, and they are often spontaneous in the way they do this. They might not be able to tap into how they are feeling on a specific occasion.
Stories in picture book format can be a useful way to talk about feelings with younger children. Books such as 'The secret C' are written for parents to read to younger children.
Older children or teenagers
Older children or young teenagers may be more articulate but less forthcoming. Being a teenager can be a time of emotional ups and downs. Teenagers can feel confused and unsure about themselves. This can make the way they deal with a parent’s illness very different from that of a younger child. Their reactions are likely to be more intense than an adult's. It is very important that they have the time to grieve about the illness and be included in what is happening.
The teenage years are also a time to establish independence. This can make it difficult for adolescents to express their feelings and look to other people for support.
They might become distant from their family and talk to their friends instead. Or they may keep it all to themselves. They may feel very uncomfortable about expressing their feelings in a group situation. They might become anxious, angry, moody and depressed. Or they may pretend that they are coping very well when actually inside they are feeling very scared and lonely.
Sometimes, children of all ages can regress when they are feeling stressed. This means that they can behave as if they were younger.
The National Cancer Institute in America has a booklet for called 'When your parent has cancer - a guide for teens'. This gives tips and ideas on how to talk about cancer and how it may affect the family.
Websites for children whose parent has cancer
Some websites may be helpful in providing support for children who have a parent with cancer.
Riprap is a UK website designed to offer support to teenagers of all ages who have a parent affected by cancer. They have an email information service, an online forum and information about local support.
This UK based organisation provides support for children who have lost a parent.
Helpline : 08088 020 021
Hope Support Services
Hope is a UK charity supporting children and young people when a close family member is diagnosed with a serious illness, such as cancer.
Hope provides a free, safe online service which is accessible from anywhere across the UK for those aged 11-25. Hope Online includes a peer support community where young people can share experiences and ways to cope.
Tel: 01989 566317
Remember to take care when children are using the web. It is your responsibility to check that the material your own child is accessing is suitable for them. We have looked at these sites before putting this information up. But we have not checked all the material on these sites and things can change over time.
Support for you
There are many cancer support groups for people with cancer. They are a way of people coming together to share their experiences, and to offer and receive support from other group members. It may help you to find out from other parents how they have coped and talked to their children.
Ask your doctor or nurse about support groups in your area. Or find out about the different organsations and what they can offer.
You can share your experiences online by visiting use CancerChat, our online forum.