Young children: What to say about cancer

It’s not easy to talk with children less than six years old about the fact that you have cancer. You probably have questions about what words to use, and what reactions to expect. All families are different, and no one can write the perfect script for you and your child. But there are important things to keep in mind.

What you decide to tell your children will depend on many important things, such as:

  • The way in which you and your partner usually talk with your children about important family matters
  • Your children’s age and their ability to understand cancer
  • How ready you are to talk with them

What your child needs to know

Child development experts have learned what worries young children when their parent has cancer. Knowing these worries may help you decide what to say.

  • Children need to know that it is not their fault, it is not contagious, and sometimes doctors don’t know why people get sick, but that there is treatment.
  • Use familiar examples. Young children are only able to understand things they have experienced first-hand, so they may understand, “Mommy is sick and needs to go see the doctor to get better.”
  • Reassure young children that they are safe and secure.
  • Be as honest as possible, as children have fears that are worse than reality.
  • Talking with children as soon as you feel ready helps start the open, supportive, honest communication that you will need during treatment.
  • Don’t underestimate your children’s ability to make sense of spoken and unspoken information. While they may not grasp everything that you are talking about with other adults, they will know that it is something serious, sad, or scary, by your tone of voice. It is important that you know when to protect them from your conversations with other adults.
  • Talk to young children in a direct manner that is appropriate for their age

How young children may react

Young children need to be reassured about their own security. They may worry about a sick parent, but they will also worry about their own safety and health, and whether there will be a change in their routine. These reactions are common in young children:

  • Returning to behavior they had when younger, such as forgetting their toilet training or carrying a blanket
  • Showing a lot of anxiety when they are separated from a parent
  • Increased attention-seeking behavior
  • Worry about how treatment will change their routine, and who will be taking care of them

While it can be hard to do, you want your children to feel comfortable coming to you at any time, with any of their questions and worries.

References

American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancerwww.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.

National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Retrieved 7/1/08 from www.cancer.gov.