Family and Friends Health Care

How to Talk to Your Kids About Cancer

A father talks with his daughter while both are sitting on a couch.

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If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, you’re already feeling lots of emotions — and thinking about how to share this information with your kids may be one of the things causing a lot of heartache during a difficult time. Learn more about how to talk to your kids about cancer, what’s considered age-appropriate information and how to stay open throughout this process.

Tips for Speaking with Children About Cancer

No two families are alike, and parents should think through the best way to talk to their child about a cancer diagnosis, given their unique personality and needs.

But generally, parents should:

  • Be honest throughout your treatment
  • Encourage children to ask questions
  • Plan exactly what you will share in advance
  • Share details about physical changes and shifts in the household routine
  • Take care not to overwhelm them with too much information

Age-Appropriate Information About Cancer Diagnosis

You may be hesitant to share information with your children because you’re worried about causing them stress and anxiety. But the truth is they may feel more anxious if they suspect you’re holding back information from them (and kids can be more perceptive than you think).

Speaking with young kids about cancer is different than talking with teenagers about cancer. For instance, while older children may understand what cancer is or even know someone else who’s been diagnosed, young children may not understand what it means for a parent to be sick with a serious illness or, in some cases, may even think they somehow caused the illness.

Considerations for Kids Not of School Age

For starters, it’s important to use words they can understand. And while they may not need all the details, it’s important to share things like where the cancer is in your body, how treatment will make you feel and what changes they can expect at home. For example, sharing that you may be in the hospital for some time and that another trusted adult might be taking care of them more often can help to set expectations.

Make sure to provide information in small chunks and ask questions to see how they’re processing your words and to ensure they understand what may come next.

Above all, be empathetic and provide lots of physical and emotional support throughout these conversations.

Considerations for School-Aged Children

Older children will need similar information, such as the type of cancer and treatment, but may be able to process more details. You can, for instance, share more about what you expect from your treatment. It can also be helpful to check your local library for books about cancer to provide another layer of support and understanding.

Considerations for Teenagers

Teenagers will likely have a high level of understanding and may want as many details as you’re able to give them. However, they may be less willing to open up — sharing what they’re feeling may be extremely difficult. In this case, it’s best to simply remain available and make sure they know it’s OK to come to you if they want to talk about it. It’s also a good idea to encourage them to talk with other trusted adults about their feelings if talking to you directly is too hard.

Staying Open with Children Throughout Treatment

Regardless of your child’s age, encourage them to keep asking questions, and make it a point to keep them continually updated. Talking with your kids about cancer treatment is not a one-time talk but an ongoing conversation. It’s important to let them know how it’s going at every stage of your treatment and whether there have been (or will be) changes. For example, understanding the side effects of cancer treatment — like the possibility that you’ll lose your hair or may vomit a lot after treatments — can go a long way toward helping kids feel less alarmed if they happen.

Here for Every Step of Your Cancer Journey

Sharing a cancer diagnosis with family is an important step. AdventHealth is here to support your family through this — and every other step of your cancer care. With a world-class team behind you, we’re ready to help you fight with better care, better treatments and better outcomes. Learn more.

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