This is one of six documents covering topics to help young children and teens when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover information on: treatment, recurrence or progressive illness, terminal illness, losing a parent, and psychosocial support services. For more information on these and other topics, go to the “To Learn More” section.
Children take cues about cancer from parents and other adults. How a child reacts to a cancer diagnosis often depends on how their parents or other close adults handle the crisis. Kids learn through their parents’ behavior. Although parents know this, they are under a great deal of stress and have their own intense feelings of fear and uncertainty. Sometimes, with the right kind of help, parents and their children can and do learn to cope well with cancer and its treatments.
The focus here is mainly on talking with children when a parent has cancer, but you also can use these ideas if another adult loved one has cancer. If a child in the family has cancer, you may want to read Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis.
Why do we need to tell children that a parent has cancer?Some parents are afraid their children will worry more if they are told the facts about what’s happening. It’s important to keep in mind that parents and children have very different life experiences. This makes it unlikely that a child will react to a problem the same way an adult would.
Cancer is an impossible secret to keep. You’ve probably already noticed that children tend to overhear adults talking about subjects not meant for them. This happens even when the child looks busy with other things and doesn’t seem to be listening. If they think something is being kept from them, some kids will even look for ways to listen without being noticed.
When children hear these conversations, they often pick up on the anxiety and worry of their parents. Even if they don’t overhear anything, they can see that others are acting differently and usually sense that something is wrong. Kids tend to be afraid and believe the worst if they haven’t been given complete information. The effort it takes to keep such secrets may rob the parent of precious energy, too.
If children hear about their parent’s cancer from someone else, like a curious neighbor or a classmate, it can destroy the trust that parents have worked to build. If children think their parents are being vague on purpose or are trying to hide something from them, they might find it hard to know when they are being told the truth. It’s better that parents learn how to share this information truthfully, and in a way that allows the child to understand and take part in the discussion.
Another problem in keeping cancer a secret is that the child may assume that whatever is happening is too terrible to talk about. This might make them feel isolated or shut out from the family, because no one will talk about their biggest concern. This means that the natural desire parents have to protect their kids sometimes only makes things harder for the child. Parents know that it’s impossible to shield children from all of the stressful parts of life, and that part of their job is to teach their children how to manage these challenges.
Once treatment starts, the child may see side effects like tiredness, weight changes, hair loss, or vomiting. They see that the parent is sick, and might assume that the parent is going to die. They may think that others in the family will get the same illness. They may think that life as they know it will end. Not knowing what’s going on or how to cope with it can be terrifying to a child. To avoid this, children need to be told about the illness. They should know in advance the kinds of side effects that cancer treatment might cause.