During and after treatment, children will likely be less anxious and feel more secure when they are included and told the truth. Your children will benefit from being told the news as soon as possible, as they may sense when something is wrong. Have the conversation as soon as you are able to and when you can be clear about what you want to share. Remember that it doesn’t have to be one big conversation. You can support and reassure your children that the initial conversation is the first of many. They do need to hear the truth in language they can understand.
Who should tell them?
Parents are the first line of support for their children. Both parents need to be involved in deciding how and what to tell their children. If either or both parents are unable to agree on what to say, it may be helpful to talk this over with a counsellor. If you feel unable to talk to your children, it is best to select someone who can, and to be present during that conversation. You may find it helpful to write down what you wish to say. If the parent with cancer is not able to be present, the other parent or close family member may take the lead. A family meeting can be one of the best ways to share the news.
While you may want to avoid your children’s sadness, anger, or questions about death, children need the opportunity to ask questions and express fears. This is a time to role model that sometimes things happen that make you feel sad, or scared or mad. Talk with your children and answer their questions truthfully. If you are open, your children will realize they can count on you to be honest with them. They will have a better chance of handling whatever happens in the family and in their lives. It is inevitable that they will overhear something. It takes a lot of valuable energy to keep a secret.
Worry is something we all do, including children. As a parent, you cannot protect your children from worry, but you can help to ease their anxieties by giving them accurate information and talking with them about their fears and worries. When they are excluded or told very little, children will sense that something is wrong and become anxious, but they will feel discouraged from asking about their parents’ health or seeking assurance.
Without the truth, your children are likely to imagine something far worse. Remember to give your children time to adjust. Provide more opportunities for them to come back and ask questions or share their feelings.
Children need to understand basic information about their parent’s diagnosis, and basic facts about cancer. Remember, information needs to match your children’s level of understanding. To ensure this is happening, ask your children what they heard you tell them (or how they might explain it to someone else like a friend or an aunt).
Children are reassured when you let them know that:
- you will continue to talk with them and answer their questions
- you will let them know what will change and what will be the same
- you want them to be involved - talk with them about how they can help
- they will be looked after no matter what
- you will get though this together as a family
- everyone in the family needs to adjust to the news
- you want them to continue their activities and will help them do this
- it is important for them to play and see their friends