Talking to Children About Cancer

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education with a focus in counseling.

This lesson discusses how a parent can talk to their child about a cancer diagnosis. The lesson talks about general guidelines and then how to talk to young children, teens and adult children about cancer.

An Issue Affecting Children of All Ages

When Susan first found out that she had cancer, she was worried about herself, but she was more worried about how her family would react. She was especially concerned for her children. Her son Tom was in his second year of grad school, her second oldest Jake was a senior in high school, and she and her husband of seven years had a daughter, Emily, aged six. Susan knew that all of the children would have different needs, and she wasn't sure how to accommodate them all. She needed help understanding how she was to talk to her children about her diagnosis.

General Guidelines

Susan needs to understand how she can support each of her children, but there are some messages that they all need to hear. Cancer does not necessarily mean that Mom will die. Doctors are quickly coming up with new and better ways to treat all forms of cancer, so Mom may be able to live a long life despite the terrible diagnosis. All of her children also need to be able to ask questions and receive reasonable answers. Trying to protect a child from the realities of cancer can actually produce more fear and anxiety. It is also important to make sure that they understand that their feelings are valid no matter what they are.

Young Children

Losing Susan will be difficult for the older boys, but it can be devastating to Emily who is just starting out in life. She may come to believe either that the cancer is somehow her fault or that she can behave better and make it go away. Younger children may also become more clingy because they are not receiving the same amount of attention they are used to, or they may shut down. Emily needs to have time with Susan, as much as is possible to know that she is still loved and cared for by her mom.

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