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What to Tell Your Child

Regardless of age, children are usually aware when their health causes their parents concern. Your child may experience a variety of emotions, such as anger, guilt, fear, anxiety and sadness, all in quick succession. Sometimes parents wish to shield their child from information about the illness and its treatment. Keep in mind that your child will use his or her imagination to fill in perceived gaps of information. Talk with your child about the illness and its treatment. Listen carefully to what your child is saying (or not saying) and then answer his or her questions. Be sensitive to your child’s body language and other reactions. These conversations are key to building trust. Your child is more likely to let you know when something is scary or worrisome if he or she trusts you. You can take this opportunity to address some of those fears and concerns.

Introduce your child to treatment team members who provide psychosocial support, such as a psychologist, nurse, social worker and child life specialist. In addition to helping you explain the illness and its treatment to your child, they can help your child better understand their disease through play or other activities.

When speaking with your child about his or her illness, keep these talking points in mind:

  • Give your child information that's age appropriate — a level that matches his or her ability to understand. You may need to give your child information more than once. Older children may want to know more about their illness and treatment.
  • Explain that all cancers aren't the same. Many children, especially older ones, have heard of cancer and may know of someone who has died from cancer. Explain to your child that cancers affecting older adults are different than childhood leukemia or lymphoma.
  • Encourage your child to talk about fears and concerns and answer his or her questions. Acknowledge your child's behaviors and emotions as they arise.
  • Let your child know you'll stay with him or her as much as possible. If you'll be separated from your child, explain this in advance and show other forms of support in your absence, such as phone calls and photos.
  • Help your child recognize that the doctors and nurses are working to help him or her get well, even though they may have to do things that cause pain. Explain the reasons for tests and treatments.
  • Understand that at times your child may act as if there is nothing wrong. You may wonder if he or she understands what's happening. Children commonly process information in small amounts, which helps them cope at their own pace.

 Read the PDF, Talking to Your Child About Cancer, for additional information and for age-appropriate discussion guidelines. 

 See Worksheet 3: Questions for You to Ask Your Child. 

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