Parents sometimes feel that by not telling a child or teenager about a cancer diagnosis, they are protecting them.
Trying to protect children from difficult news, worry and distress is natural. But not explaining what’s happening may make them feel more vulnerable. It’s important to give them the chance to talk openly about their fears and worries. If they overhear things, they may interpret things wrongly.
Children know when something serious is affecting the family and people they are close to. They’ll notice unusual comings and goings, phone calls and hushed conversations. They may also pick up on changes in how you and other adults around them are feeling and behaving.
Understandably, you may have concerns that delay or stop you explaining what’s happening. You may feel it will bring home the reality of the situation, when you’re still struggling to come to terms with it yourself. The thought of coping with a child’s distress on top of everything else may seem overwhelming. Or you may worry that family life will be disrupted and that cancer will become the focus, instead of things like school and exams.
The benefits of talking
There are many benefits to being open and involving children and teenagers:
- Knowing what’s going on may make them feel more secure and less anxious.
- It gives them permission to talk – they can ask questions, say how they feel and talk openly to you.
- It shows you trust them and that you don’t feel you need to guard what you say all the time.
- It can make you all feel closer – your children can help support you, and you can help support them.
- It might help them cope better with difficult situations in life.
The effects of not talking
Wanting to protect children from difficult news is natural. But if you don’t talk to them, they may:
- feel frightened because they don’t know what’s going on
- feel alone with lots of worries and no one to talk to
- worry that something they’ve done or thought has caused the cancer
- think they’re not important enough to be included
- imagine something worse than the reality
- think cancer is too terrible to be talked about misunderstand situations and get the wrong idea about what’s happening.
Children often find out about what’s going on even when they haven’t been told – for example through friends whose families know each other. Finding out like this can have a negative effect on their relationship with their parent(s). They may wonder if they can trust you, or other adults, to tell them about important things.
Children also pick up things from the television, internet and overheard conversations, but this information isn’t always accurate. If you don’t speak to them about what’s really happening, they may continue to believe this information.