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When a Parent Is Diagnosed with Cancer, What Do You Tell the Kids? 12 Tips

Being a parent and receiving a cancer diagnosis at any age is hard. It doesn’t matter how old you are as the parent. It doesn’t matter how old you are as the child. Well, that’s not entirely true, but… When a parent is diagnosed, what do you tell the kids?

I’ve been on both sides of this particular cancer fence. I’ve been the “child.” I’ve been the parent. Being on either side is hard.

Even though I was of a mature age when my mother received her cancer diagnosis, it was still tough for me as a daughter to watch her go through diagnosis and treatment, and I’m sure it was hard for her to observe me watching her go through it. Even though her children were adults, she still wanted to protect us.

When my diagnosis came, I learned quickly what it was like to be the parent.

I was lucky in some respects because my children were not young children. Mine were young adults, the youngest being eighteen at the time of my diagnosis. However, they had just witnessed first-hand their grandmother’s illness and death from metastatic breast cancer. They already knew and understood way too much. Their knowledge was, and still is, a concern of mine. I worry they know too much because, in fact, they do.

When you receive a cancer diagnosis when raising young children, the challenges are much different, and I dare say probably more difficult, at least in some ways.

Having said this, there is no better time to get cancer. A better time doesn’t exist.

Cancer at any age or from any vantage point sucks.

When a parent with young children receives a cancer diagnosis, there may be a lot of uncertainty as to how much to tell them, or if they’re really young, if they should be told at all. Of course, this is a very personal decision. There is no right answer.

As an educator and a parent, I believe in being truthful with age-appropriate information when explaining to kids about cancer. If children are of an age when they can understand a simple but honest explanation, I believe they can and should be told at least some of the truth.

Kids are really good at figuring out when something is wrong anyway. They may hesitate to talk about their worries or be afraid and unsure of what to ask. They may keep such feelings, fears and questions to themselves, which may or may not lead to those feelings coming out in unexpected or inappropriate behaviors at some point.

As I’ve said before, not talking about something does not equal not thinking about it.

When feelings and fears are bottled up too long, they tend to come out eventually in some form anyway. Also, kids are really good at imagining things on their own if they don’t receive an explanation. Sometimes they really do imagine the worst when they don’t need to.

Don’t we all?

Giving kids enough information, but not too much, can help alleviate such tendencies.

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, what DO you tell the kids?

Below are some tips for talking to your child/children about a cancer diagnosis. Obviously, I am not a professional counselor. These are just my suggestions.

 1. Decide who is the best person to tell the child/children. This might be the parent with the cancer diagnosis, the other parent or another family member (or close friend) entirely. I left “my telling” up to Dear Hubby. I couldn’t bring myself to do it so soon after my mother’s illness and death.

 2. Although there is no good time to break the news, try to pick an appropriate time to have the initial cancer discussion when you can devote the time and extra mental energy it will undoubtedly require.

 3. Start with a simple explanation and then see what questions or concerns come up.

 4. Take the lead from each child. Offer reassurance as honestly as possible and always give each child an opportunity to state their feelings and ask questions. They might need to process the information for a while, so be sure to check back in frequently.

 5. You don’t need to tell every cancer detail, but don’t feel you must hold everything back either. Find the right balance for your family.

 6. Remember each child, even in the same family, might need more or less information and that’s fine. It doesn’t always boil down to age. Some younger children might want and handle more information better than older ones.

 7. Refrain from over-protecting your children. Kids can handle a whole lot more than we think they can. They don’t necessarily need protection all the time from the bad things in life and trying to protect them may, in fact, be more harmful in the long run.

 8. There are resources available to help. Use them if you need guidance or suggestions.

 9. Asking for help can be hard and sometimes asking for help after a cancer diagnosis can be even harder for some reason. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if needed.

10. Tell yourself as many times as necessary that it’s okay for your children to see you vulnerable. This one’s harder than it sounds.

11. Don’t underestimate your children’s ability to cope, with your guidance of course.

12. Do the best you can. Remember parenting before cancer is hard at times. Parenting during cancer treatment is hard at times. Parenting when cancer treatment ends, or if you’re metastatic and treatment will be ongoing, will be hard at times too.

Being honest with children may help bring your family closer as everyone rallies together to help. Even young children are capable of exhibiting tremendous understanding, empathy and compassion. Sometimes we just need to allow them the chance to do so.

Each cancer diagnosis is unique. Each family is unique, as is each child.

Any family dealing with a cancer diagnosis must decide what’s uniquely right for them.

Is honesty always the best policy here too?

I think it is.

Have you had to tell children about a cancer diagnosis and if so, how did you go about it?

What has been one of your challenges parenting with cancer?

Have you been the child of a parent diagnosed with cancer?

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Jen Singer

Tuesday 24th of April 2012

Great list! It's great that parents share what they've learned about parenting with cancer. Today at ParentingWithCancer.com, Brandie Langer shares her experience and advice she learned when she had breast cancer: http://parentingwithcancer.com/2012/04/24/pwc-best-friend/

Nancy

Wednesday 25th of April 2012

Jen, Sharing about parenting with cancer is so important isn't it? Thanks for all you do.

Lori

Tuesday 3rd of April 2012

Great post, Nancy! I recently wrote about the same topic...it is truly one of the most heartbreaking moments in this journey. I could not agree with you more...honesty is ABSOLUTELY

Nancy

Wednesday 4th of April 2012

Lori, Thanks so much for stopping by. I'll have to check out your post. And yes, honesty is always best, even when discussing cancer.

Lori

Tuesday 3rd of April 2012

(oops...SORRY!) the best policy, but with a careful measure of what your children (especially young children) are ready to absorb.

alli

Saturday 31st of March 2012

Hi Nancy Telling children is as equally important as how you do it as choosing the right words. Going back to when I was first diagnosed I tried to keep it light, I did not want him being upset, yet I know he heard me speaking with others upset teary and many times scared of the unknown. So it is like a game being played out, each one trying to protect the other and no one helping the situation. Your rules or methods are excellent guides. In hindsight would have I done things differently? By all means. When I found out my grandfather had colon-rectal cancer I was inconsolable. I literally spent days in bed crying because the word Cancer was another meaning for a death sentence. Yes he did die, I found out by mistake no one was supposed to know. Back then it was something we did not talk about.Coming from an Eastern European family illness was hush hush, children were not supposed to worry yet I was nearly 18 then. There were issues with my son after diagnosis, treatment and post treatment. It has been a difficult, children know when you are covering up, hence anxiety loss of sleep, unknown fears set in. Be truthful in a way they are able to grasp........ Another good post Nancy... Alli.....

Nancy

Saturday 31st of March 2012

Alli, I'm sorry about your grandfather. That must have been so hard. Parents have always wanted to protect their children haven't they? I'm sure we'd all do some things differently in regards to telling our kids. You did the best you could at the time. I know your son has had "issues," but he had a lot to deal with and take care of. I hope he's doing alright now as he gets out on his own. Lastly, I agree - "be truthful in a way they are able to grasp." That's what I believe too. Thanks for your comments.

Beth L. Gainer

Thursday 29th of March 2012

Outstanding post, Nancy! I love how you broke the telling to kids into steps. Number 10 is still difficult for me. When my friend was diagnosed with a recurrence, I cried in front of my daughter. But you are right, kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. I explained that mommy's friend was sick, but she'd be better. That was all that was needed.

And you are right, there's no "better" time for cancer. It stinks whatever the circumstances.

And thanks for your recent e-mail. I will be answering it soon!

-- Beth

Nancy

Thursday 29th of March 2012

Beth, I think number 10 is a tough one too. I'm sure it made you uncomfortable to cry in front of your daughter, but it was entirely appropriate and probably a meaningful learning experience for her. As you said, she immediately understood the reasons when you explained the situation to her. Kids are capable of so much empathy and understanding, but you know that! Thanks for commenting. No rush on the email response...

BreastCancerSisterhood.com

Thursday 29th of March 2012

Telling those we love about our cancer is never easy, especially when it's our children. You're right that children have a tremendous capacity to understand and intuit the situation, but regardless of the age, they may need reassurance and handholding, just like us. Many children I've heard about believe that in some way, they caused their parent's cancer, so we need to reassure them, even if they don't articulate it that way, that we can't make cancer happen by our actions.

Brenda

Nancy

Thursday 29th of March 2012

Brenda, You are absolutely right. Just as ChemoBabe mentioned, we must reassure kids they did not cause the cancer. That's so important. It's worth saying it to them even if they don't verbalize that particular worry. Thanks for commenting.

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