Good Morning Everyone,
Today’s post is about talking to children about cancer. This is never an easy thing to do but hopefully this post will offer you some tips and resources to give you a helping hand. The post today was written by, well little old me actually! (Sorry it’s a little on the long side, editing was never my strong suit). I realise I have never really introduced myself before so I have written a little personal bio below. As always, please feel free to offer any feedback, comments or question, in fact we’d love that! Now to hand over to…well myself…….
Hi my name’s Rob O’Connor and I am a trainee Social Worker in University College Cork. I have volunteered in ARC House since 2009. I have long had a particular interest in working with and supporting children and families and love working in this area. I have volunteered and worked with children in different capacities including working as part of a child protection and welfare team and also in community development with children in Kenya. I am also the facilitator of the Cork ARC Cancer Support Blog as part of a link between University College Cork and Cork ARC Cancer Support House.
Talking to Children about Cancer:
It may be hard to tell children that you or a loved one has cancer. A parent’s natural reaction may be to protect their children by not talking to them about cancer. However, it is important to include children, so that they will not feel left out, unimportant or imagine things to be worse than they are. Children are also much more observant than they are given credit for and will pick up on changes in the family, different comings and goings, serious faces and atmospheres, hushed voices on the phone and so on. It may be more upsetting or frightening for a child if they know that something is different in the family but no one is talking to them. Often they overhear it or someone in the playground tells them. Being open and honest with children maintains their trust in you, gives them permission to talk about cancer, and empowers them to play a role in the family. Cancer is a journey that you and your family will take together and it is important to include all members in this, as families can grow closer and stronger together.
There is no right time to tell children but as early as possible might be best, before obvious changes occur so that they feel prepared for these changes. It is important to give children information appropriate to their age and deliver this information in ways that they can understand and in amounts they can take in. It is easier if children are told about cancer by someone who is close to them, like the parent who has cancer, both parents together or maybe grandparents. It is best to talk to the child in a comfortable environment where they feel at ease. Sometimes it is easier to talk while doing another activity like playing or walking, as this may seem a little less formal.
A good way to start the conversation might be to find out what the child already knows about cancer or any misunderstandings that they may have. Children will probably have heard bits and pieces from friends, school, television and so on. The child may have heard of someone that has died of cancer but they may not have heard of the millions of people that live with cancer. It is important to have accurate information when talking to the child. Cancer is not something that can be passed on, like flu or chicken pox. Children are often worried that they can pick it up in this way. There are many different kinds of cancer that affect people in many different ways.
Children can be quite direct and ask ‘are you going to die’. It is important to listen to the child and respond honestly, remembering that cancer can be treated and the aim is to cure. It is also important to remember that with some cancers, treatment will no longer cure and that some cancers do cause people to die. You may not have all the answers to the questions that children may ask and it is ok to be honest and tell them this. ‘I don’t know the answer to that right now but I will find out’. Remaining open and honest with the child and not brushing off their concerns or worries is what helps a child to cope if you can be with their questions they can be with the answers.
The most important thing is to be honest with children and talk to them according to their age and in a language that they will understand.
• Be prepared beforehand and practice what you want to say, as children may ask direct questions.
• Take your time and leave plenty of time to spend with the children afterwards.
• Remember there are no ‘right words’ to say. Use clear simple everyday words and explanations, especially with young children.
• Explain what the illness is by using the word cancer and that there are different kinds.
• Explain how the person’s usual wellbeing will be affected.
• Give some details about what the treatment involves in clear and simple language.
• Give children the information slowly and repeat important parts. Do not overload them with a lot of information all at once as this can be confusing. This conversation may be the starting point to lay the groundwork for open communication and you can gradually give more information and reassurance in little pieces.
• Reassure them about their daily routine and how this will change, as routine can help children feel safe.
• Talk through the children’s thoughts, ideas and fears with them.
• Ask questions to make sure that the child understands but in a sensitive way.
• Reassure children that you will keep letting them know what is going on and that they can ask you any questions that they need to.
• Listen well to the children, they will often lead you about what they want to know.
• Ask children how they are feeling and help them with the words if they need it as they may not have the emotional vocabulary.
• It is helpful to share your feelings with your child too, ‘it’s ok to be sad or if you feel like crying, I’m a little sad too because Daddy is sick’.
• Let children know that it is not their fault. Children can often blame themselves for things that they do not understand. It is important to reassure them that this has not happened because they behaved badly or said something bad.
• Let the child know the other people that they can talk to about cancer; friends, teachers, aunties/uncles, a social worker or whoever they feel comfortable talking to.
• It’s okay to still have fun. Let your child know that it is perfectly ok not to be sad or worried all the time. Sometimes it seems like an illness can take over your life but it is important to still have fun, have outings with your child. Joking and laughter can relieve tension.
It is important to know that you can ask for support for yourself around talking to children about cancer, if you need to. There are also people that can support you in the conversation with your children such as the Doctor, Nurse, Medical Social Worker or someone here at ARC House. There are also books and activities that you can do with children especially around areas like explaining what cancer is and explaining treatments. These activities include things like drawing exercises and feelings exercises that you can find out more about if you feel that may help.
Please remember that you know your children best. Each child responds in his or her own way. Trust your instincts and draw on how your family normally communicates. It is important to know that we cannot stop our children feeling sad, but we can give them information about what is happening and support them in whatever they are feeling.
Telling your children that someone important to them has cancer is not easy but remember children are resilient. With love, honest support and consistency they can become very resilient in themselves and play a huge part in the family’s journey through cancer.
Some really useful online resources for children with parents who have cancer include RipRap and Winston’s Wish.
Please feel free to contact ARC House if you would like more support or information on anything talked about here.