As a parent, you want to protect your children from being hurt or upset. If you have cancer, though, it could be hard to keep your children from learning about your illness. There will be many facts about your diagnosis and treatment that you’ll need to share with your family. Talking to everyone openly and honestly is key. You may think that giving your children information about your cancer will make them more upset. But when parents act like they’re keeping a secret, children may think that the situation is worse than it is. They need to feel that it’s safe to ask questions and to share their feelings.
Children can find support at these web sites: www.kidskonnected.org, www.siblinks.org and
www.myparentscancer.com.au/. Your hospital or medical team should also have some pamphlets or information that can help your children deal with your illness.
Pay attention to your children’s worries and behavior
Children worry in ways that we don’t expect. They may be afraid that talking back or acting mean caused a parent’s illness, or that they’ll “catch” cancer from a sick parent. They may lose sleep for fear that the other parent will get cancer next, leaving no one to care for them. Even if your children don’t talk about these fears out loud, be sure they understand that they didn’t make you sick, and that they (or the other parent) can’t catch your cancer.
Like adults, children often act younger when they’re under stress – and they can act in ways that show their personalities: For example, when things go wrong, a fearful child may become even more afraid.
Show the right emotions
Speak with your children when you’re not too upset or emotional. You don’t have to hide your painful emotions – just try not to make them seem too overwhelming for your children. If you’re feeling especially sick or sad, don’t pretend that everything is okay. Giving a mixed message is scary and confusing for children and makes it hard for them to trust you.
It’s a good idea for both parents to talk about the situation with their children; single parents can ask a relative or friend to sit in on the conversation. Taking these steps can bring the illness out into the open. It also shows children that they have strong support from the grown-ups in their lives.
Provide the right amount of information
Handle your children’s questions about cancer the same way that you handle other sensitive subjects, like sex: Answer their questions, but don’t give them more information than they need. Use honest, simple language that they can understand. If your children stop paying attention or act distracted, it might mean that they’ve heard enough.
Prepare children for change
Cancer, or cancer treatments, can change how your body looks. Children will cope better if you talk about these changes before they happen. Explain that you’ll be taking strong medicine to fight your cancer, but that the drugs may make you lose your hair or feel tired. Keep in mind that hair loss can be scary for younger children. Let them know that your hair will grow back and that they won’t lose their hair just because you did.
Teenagers may feel embarrassed by any changes in your appearance. Ask what you can do to help them feel better: For example, if you’re losing your hair, ask if it would help for you to wear a scarf or a wig.
Children feel less afraid when a parent looks healthier. Some hospitals offer classes in taking care of your appearance.
Explain how you feel
Your children won’t feel responsible for your illness if you’re able to put a label on how you’re feeling. Give reasons why you can’t join in everyday activities. For example, you could say, “Mommy is tired today,” or “Daddy is sad today.” If you can’t lift your child because you’re too tired, say so. Find other ways to be close, such as lying down on the couch together, watching a movie, or talking about your child’s day.
Some children, especially younger ones, may find it hard to be around a parent who’s very sick, Other children may think it’s scary to be apart from you. You know your child better than anyone else: Use your judgment to decide whether your child needs to stay with a relative or friend.
Find a safe place to talk about your feelings
Parents with cancer need a safe place away from children to deal with the strong feelings that are caused by a cancer diagnosis. Share your feelings with your partner, friends, a support group or a counselor. If you’re very tired and stressed from your illness, sometimes it’s possible to lose control. Tell your children that your mood has nothing to do with them, so that they won’t try to take the blame.
Cancer can give your family a chance to grow stronger, and to feel proud that you worked together to get through a major crisis. And as your children grow, they will know that they can handle other big challenges in their lives, too.
American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer. www.cancer.org.
Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from www.cancercare.org
Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins.