Cancer can have a profound impact on your life and your family and the prospect of explaining a diagnosis of cancer to children or teenagers may feel overwhelming. However, a sensitive and honest conversation can help to provide reassurance during a time of uncertainty and change.
To help you navigate through this sensitive issue we have compiled some tips on discussing all stages of cancer with children.
When explaining a cancer diagnosis to kids it’s important to remember the following:
• Let them know what’s happening
• Make explanations simple, honest and concrete
• Tell them what to expect • Be ready for confronting questions
• Allow them the space to grieve
• Acknowledge the reality but share your hopes
Discussion tips at different cancer stages
• Be honest
• Tell them what to expect
• Find out what they know
• Balance hope with reality
• Show your love and emotion
• Explain that it’s not contagious and it’s not their fault
• Share the treatment plan
• Discuss hair loss and other side effects
• Talk about how your treatment will affect them
• Let them know who will look after them while you are away
• Let them guide you on how much they know and how much they want to know
• Discuss any changes in family life
• Plan to find a new normal together
• Reassure them you will have regular check-ups
• Celebrate as a family
Views of cancer at different ages
Children’s understanding of illness and their reactions to bad news will vary depending on their age, temperament and family experiences. You may find that siblings, even of similar ages, have quite different responses. These charts give an overview of children’s needs at different ages and might help you work out how best to support them.
Newborns, infants and toddlers (0-3 years)
Infants have little awareness of illness but are aware of their parents’ anxiety and other feelings.
Pre-schoolers (3 -6 years)
By the age of 3, children have a basic understanding of illness. It’s natural for children this age to be egocentric and think everything is related to them. They may believe they caused the illness or that cancer is contagious.
Primary schoolchildren (6-12 years)
During the primary school years, children become ready for basic information about cancer cells. Some children may have heard about cancer, but may not know how it starts. They may understand that people, including parents, can die.
Teenagers (12-18 years)
During adolescence, young people start to think more like adults and may want lots of information. Although they understand that people are fragile, they are more likely to deny fear and worry to avoid discussion.
We have a range of resources available with further information on talking to kids about cancer and helping them adjust to the situation. You can find out more here or in our Talking to kids about cancer booklet. We also have a range of support services available that may be able to help make things a little easier at home. You can find out more here or give our cancer care nurses a call on 13 11 20.