Talking with your child about cancer


This article has advice to help you  talk with your child. Begin with the knowledge that you know your child best. You know what makes your child laugh, and you know what upsets your child. Your child depends on you for helpful, accurate, and truthful information. Talk calmly and directly with your child during this frightening time.

Honesty builds trust. Tell your child about the illness and what to expect. This will help your child trust you and the health care team. Children who are not told what is happening or why are often fearful and may imagine the worst.

Work together with people on your child’s health care team, such as social workers and child life specialists. Social workers are professionals who talk with people and their families about emotional and physical needs and help to find them support services. Child life specialists are health care professionals who are trained in the developmental and psychological needs of children and who help children understand and cope with medical issues.

“My son was old enough and smart enough for me to level with him about everything. I learned as much as I could about the cancer he had, but mostly I did what parents do best—I loved and was always there for my child.”

How can talking help your child?

Your knowledge and insights about your child, combined with your health care team’s expertise, can help your child:

Comfort your baby by holding and gently touching her. Skin to skin contact is ideal. Bring familiar items from home, such as toys or a blanket. Familiar sights and smells can help your baby feel more secure. Talk or sing to your child, since the sound of your voice is soothing. Try to keep up feeding and bedtime routines as much as possible.

“I found that just humming to my baby and gently rubbing her feet kept her calm during blood draws.”

If your child is 1 to 3 years old

Very young children understand things they can see and touch. They fear being away from their parents and want to know if something will hurt. Toddlers like to play, so find safe ways to let your child play. Toddlers also like to start making choices, so let your child choose a sticker or a flavor of medicine when possible. Prepare your child ahead of time if something will hurt. Not doing so may cause your child to become fearful and anxious.

“Toys in the playroom at the hospital kept Riley busy while we waited to be seen by the doctor. We also brought a backpack filled with some of his favorite toys and his blanket.”

If your child is 3 to 5 years old

To help your child understand his treatment better, ask the doctor if he can touch the models, machines, or supplies (tubes, bandages, or ports) ahead of time. If a test or treatment may hurt, prepare your child in advance. You can also distract your child and try to take her mind away from the pain by reading a story or giving her a stuffed animal to hold.

“We found a picture book about the hospital. Jamie wanted us to read it all the time. We still have the book, even though she’s completed treatment.”

If your child is 6 to 12 years old

School-aged children understand that medicines and treatment help them get better. They are able to cooperate with treatment but want to know what to expect. Children this age often have many questions, so be ready to answer them or to find the answers together. Talk with your child’s doctor or nurse for answers to difficult questions or situations. Relationships are important, so help your child to stay in touch with friends and family.

“John just turned 11, and he is really interested in how treatment works. He’s always asking questions. He tells his big brother not to worry—that he will be fine. His doctor says he will make a great doctor one day!”

If your child is a teenager

Teens often focus on how cancer changes their lives—their friendships, their appearance, and their activities. They may be scared and angry about how cancer has changed their life and isolated them from their friends. Friendships are very important at this age, so look for ways to help your teen stay connected to friends through texting, e-mails, online video chats, letters, pictures, and visits. Some teens use social media sites to stay connected to friends.

Your teen may feel that cancer has taken a lot of her freedom and privacy away. She may need to depend on you at a time when she is trying to become her own person. It will likely help to give your teen some of the space and freedom she had before treatment and encourage independence. Make sure your teen is included in treatment planning and other choices.

Some teens with cancer feel as if nothing bad could ever happen to them, and others have fears about death. Your teen may try to protect you and others they love by holding in their feelings. Don’t assume you know what your teen is thinking. Take time to observe and listen. Many people, teens included, have trouble sharing their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it may be easier for your teen to confide in a friend or a member of the health care team than in you.

“Jackie is 14 and really social. She sees her friends between chemo treatment cycles. They do normal teen stuff—watch movies, play video games, and hang out. This weekend they made a poster using photos they’ve taken and pictures from magazines. We put it up on her wall. It was good to hear laughter coming from her bedroom again!”

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