Telling your children about your cancer
You’ll probably need time to cope with your own feelings before talking to your children.
Try to talk to them before they pick up on things and start to worry. Be as prepared as you can, and make sure you have all the information you need first and that you understand it.
If you’re a two-parent family, it’s usually best to tell them along with the other parent – but this can depend on how you usually talk as a family. If you’re a single parent you may feel able to, and want to, do it on your own. Or you could do it along with someone close who your child knows and trusts.
Even if you’re not doing the telling, it’s still a good idea to be there so you know what’s been said. However, some parents do prefer to let their partner tell the children and not to be there themselves. You should do whatever feels right to you.
The right time and place
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Choose a time and a place when your children are most likely to listen and feel at ease, and where you won’t be interrupted. There may be places where you and your children feel more able to talk. Make sure it’s somewhere they’ll feel able to express their feelings.
I found it quite easy to talk to my children about it, though I did make the mistake of not telling everybody everything right at the start, because I thought the youngest one was too young.
If you have more than one child, it’s best to tell them together if you can. This prevents them feeling like their siblings know more than them. If you’re telling them separately, do it as close together as possible. Some children may wonder why they were told last.
Try to avoid only telling the older children, as this can place a burden on them. Avoid telling them before bed time, as they may not be able to sleep. If it’s unavoidable, make them feel supported and answer any questions they have before they go to sleep.
As a parent, you’re the expert when it comes to your child. You know how best to communicate with them, how they might react and what support they’ll need.
If you want to, you can practise what you’re going to say beforehand and anticipate some of the questions they may ask. But don’t try too hard to have the perfect conversation.
If you plan too much, a question from your child may throw you. Children can ask questions you weren’t prepared for, and these may come hours or days later.
Choose a time when you’re feeling fairly calm. See the first conversation as a starting point. It’s the beginning of an ongoing process of gradually giving your children small, relevant chunks of information and reassurance. Allow the conversation to be directed by your children’s reactions and the questions they ask. Listen and keep it as open as you can. Try asking questions that encourage them to express what they’re thinking, rather than a one- or two-word reply.
Some examples of openers are:
‘Tell me about ….’
’How can we …?’
’What do you feel about …?’
It’s best to be honest with children. If they think you’re being vague or hiding something, they’ll find it hard to believe they’re being told the truth. Don’t make things sound less serious than they are. But, depending on your situation, you can be hopeful with them and let them know that although cancer is serious, many people get better. Tell them that you and your doctors are doing everything possible to get you well again.
It’s fine to say you don’t know if you don’t have all the answers to their questions. Tell them you’ll try to find out and will tell them when you know.
Teenagers may react differently from younger children or adults when they’re told a parent has cancer. They may ask for more information about the diagnosis and what it means for family life, and they may need more time to work through their feelings.
As with younger children, teenagers will benefit from being told the truth about the cancer and your treatment plan. It’s best to encourage them to ask any questions they have, and to answer these gently yet honestly. Remember that although teenagers value their independence, they’ll still look to you for reassurance and support.
You’ll need to use words your children will understand. These will vary, depending on their ages. Here are some tips to help you through the conversation:
Find out what they know and correct any misunderstandings.
Use simple, straightforward language and short sentences to explain what’s going on.
Keep information relevant to the current situation rather than things that will happen in the future.
Be as specific as you can – children worry more when things aren’t clear.
Ask them if there’s anything else they want to know.
Take it at the child’s pace and be prepared for them to react in their own way.
Repeat the information for younger children, especially those under seven, as they may not take it in or understand.
Children also need to understand how their lives and routines are likely to be affected.