Every parent’s worst nightmare is to hear the words, “Your child has cancer”. The words send shock waves throughout our body, mind and spirit. As we process these shock waves, we are confronted with the question, “What do I tell my child?”
Receiving the Diagnosis
Sometimes your child may have heard the news from the doctor at the same time you found out. In that case it is always okay to let your child know that you don’t have all the answers and do not know yet what it all means but that you are going to find out and will let them know as soon as you do know.
Do Your Research
After receiving the diagnosis, it is important to do your research. Write down questions to ask of your child’s doctor. Research the diagnosis, talk to other parents, child life specialists, other medical professionals and explore websites of reputable organizations.
Be Prepared to be Honest and Truthful
As parents, our natural tendency is to protect our children and shield them from anything that would cause them pain or distressing emotions. So we may have a knee jerk reaction to sugar coat a diagnosis of cancer. But children pick up on far more than we realize. They often can read the signs that something is wrong whether we tell them or not. They will often experience more anxiety and less trust when they have not been told the truth.
Being honest right from the beginning allows your child to trust and count on you. If they are given accurate information, they will not have to guess or imagine. Often times their imaginations can make things worse than they are. If you explain treatments and why they are being done, you will often get greater cooperation from your child. If you are honest about the side effects or pain of a treatment, children will not feel blindsided and will feel more confident in knowing what to expect. Finally, if you pretend everything is “okay,” your child might feel they need to pretend as well. They may refrain from sharing their emotions, questions and concerns. Stuffing their fears and emotions can potentially lead to behavior problems, regression to younger behaviors, tantrums, aggression, and/or anxiety.
Use Simple and Direct Language
Use the correct terminology in your discussions. For example, if you avoid using the word cancer and instead say they are “sick,” fear and confusion can result when someone else gets sick. Be careful about attaching the words “good” or “bad” when describing cancer. Children may begin to think they got cancer because they were bad. Describe things like anesthesia versus saying you will be “put to sleep”. A child may make the connection between “putting a family pet to sleep” with what they are about to experience. Whenever possible it is helpful to explain words that the child may hear often from health care professionals. There will be less confusion and anxiety if everyone is using the same words.
Small Bits of Information
Follow your child’s lead. Ask if they have questions. Answer their questions as simply and concisely as you can. If they need more detail, they will ask. Keep them informed with what you do know. For example, you may say something like, “The doctor is doing tests to decide how to best help you get better. When we find out, we will let you know.”
Talk about Feelings and Reassure Your Child
Allow for acknowledgement of feelings. You can model for your child by expressing your own feelings. For instance, you might say, “I am really sad that you have cancer and have to stay in the hospital.” You can also teach and encourage them to express their emotions by naming what you notice, such as, “It looks like you are angry that you have to stay home from school,” or by asking questions like, “How do you feel about the operation?” When reassuring your child, always remain truthful. Tell them about the plans to help them get better. Assure them that you will be there with them. Acknowledge that the needle will hurt for a second but will be over quickly and that you will hold their hand. Honestly tell them how the chemo may make them feel and that they are doing it because the doctors think it will help get rid of the cancer.
Manage your own Emotions, Anxiety and Fears
Be sure to address your own questions and fears. It is natural and expected to be fearful and anxious after a childhood cancer diagnosis. When you feel overwhelmed with emotions and/or anxiety, it might be helpful to talk to a licensed professional counselor to help you manage those emotions as you help your child manage the treatment phases of cancer.
Carleen Newsome, MS, LPC, CPCS, ACS is a therapist and Clinical Director at the Summit Counseling specializing in helping women and couples successfully navigate the troubled waters of grief, trauma and loss and strengthen their most cherished relationships.
Summit Counseling is a trusted North Atlanta community non-profit providing a wide array of professional counseling services to individuals, couples and families since 1990.