Health Care

Tips for Talking About a Difficult Diagnosis With Kids

A Father Hugs His Son in a Play Room at Home

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“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” –1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV

When the unthinkable happens, it’s normal to feel helpless and hopeless. We want you to remember that — even when you’re facing the worst — where there is love, there is hope.

When a child is diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer, the whole family will need solid support from a caring community and each other. We’re here for you with tips on how to communicate calmly and honestly with children when feelings of overwhelming fear are at the forefront.

Facing Difficult Conversations

A cancer or other serious diagnosis may lead to treatments such as imaging needs, chemotherapy and surgeries — and the possibilities of a transplant, amputation or even death are distressing realities to face. These are frightening topics to confront for both the patient and their family, especially when the patient is a child.

While your natural response as a parent is to protect your child by avoiding conversations surrounding these subjects, it’s important to encourage everyone involved to be open and honest to help your whole family cope through the challenges. From diagnosis and treatment to hard medical decisions and loss, no topic is off-the-table with your little ones if you approach it with sensitivity, care and love in an age-appropriate child-friendly way.

Here are some approaches to help you navigate these discussions:

  • Start by asking your child what they know about cancer, or their diagnosis. Affirm truths and correct any misinformation
  • Consider how much information to share at one time, starting with general “big picture” information. Try not to overload your child with too many details at once
  • Encourage your child to share their feelings and ask questions. Answering their questions and having honest, ongoing conversations can help them cope
  • Explain common terms the child will hear regularly such as “cancer,” “chemotherapy” and “side effects,” but in words a child will understand (use the link above for ideas)
  • Help your child understand the basic facts about the illness, the treatment and what to expect
  • Observe their reactions to different situations. If your child seems upset when they see another child without hair, for instance, use it as an opportunity to ask them about their feelings or if they have any questions
  • Offer hope that their family and care team is there to help them

How to Help Siblings Cope

When a brother or sister is diagnosed with cancer or another illness, changes to routines and shifts in responsibilities can be especially stressful for siblings. Siblings may feel less important with increased attention on the diagnosis affecting the family dynamic.

Here are some tips to help siblings navigate their emotions:

  • Acknowledge your children’s feelings and validate them
  • Be open, using age-appropriate language to explain their brother’s or sister’s diagnosis
  • Create a steady schedule so your children feel secure in their daily routines
  • Encourage your children to be involved, like helping to pick out things their brother or sister may like if in the hospital or something that can help keep them connected while they are apart
  • Give your children choices within healthy limits that you agree upon together, like being allowed to watch an hour of their favorite TV program after their homework is done
  • Make time for them and spend quality time with each child
  • Nurture their relationship and find opportunities for siblings to have fun together by playing board games, reading, FaceTiming, writing notes to each other or making crafts
  • Reassure and remind each child that they are loved and valued equally
  • Stay active and encourage your children to get involved in activities they enjoy

Remember to take care of yourself, too. You can better help your children when you take care of your own physical, emotional and spiritual health as well.

You Have Us to Help

At AdventHealth for Children, you have a solid support system on your side. Our pediatric cancer care experts are dedicated to treating and healing children who suffer from cancer or blood disorders.

Additionally, our child life specialists are available to support a positive hospital stay and reduce stress for your child and family by helping you cope with and better understand medical procedures. Through therapeutic play, self-expressive activities and age-appropriate medical education and preparation, they help create an environment that attends to your whole child — in body, mind and spirit.

We have all the technology, treatments and know-how to meet your child’s and family’s needs with top-quality, comprehensive, compassionate care.

We’re humbled by your faith in us to help heal those you love most. Learn more at AdventHealthforChildren.com/Cancer. There is always hope.

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