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The Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program of BC

Coping & Support
Talking to Your Children

CANCERCare's 10 Tips

Children have many different reactions when they learn a parent or relative has cancer. They can be afraid, confused, guilty, or angry. Let them know that feelings are never wrong. Whatever they are feeling is OK and normal. It is even normal to feel one way one day and another way the next. Tell them you have a wide range of feelings too.

As a parent, you may not always be prepared for every situation and sometimes, may not know what to say. This is a normal reaction to your children and the many overwhelming feelings and issues that are affecting you. Remember that the best way to encourage children in the family to share their feelings with you is for you to share your own. Do not be afraid to cry with children. Everyone is facing the same emotionally devastating situation.

Here are CANCERCare’s 10 tips for communicating with your children:

  1. Give your children accurate, age-appropriate information about cancer. Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer” and tell them where it is in the body. Practice your explanation beforehand so you feel more comfortable. If you don’t provide this information for them, they will often invent their own explanations, which can be even more frightening than the facts.
  2. Explain the treatment plan and what this will mean to them. For example, Dad will bring you to soccer practice instead of Mom. Prepare your children for any physical changes you might encounter throughout treatment such as hair loss, weight gain or loss, fatigue, etc.
  3. Answer your children’s questions as accurately as possible given their age and prior experience with serious illness in the family. If you do not know the answer to a question, don’t panic. Say, “I don’t know. I will try to find out the answer.”
  4. Comfort your children by explaining that no matter how they have been behaving or what their thoughts have been, they did not do anything to cause the cancer. Explain that they cannot “catch” cancer like they catch a cold.
  5. Let the children know about other members of the support system, including your partner, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers, coaches and your health care team. Let them know they can ask questions of these adults, and can always talk to them about their feelings.
  6. Allow your children to participate and make a contribution to your care by giving them age-appropriate tasks such as bringing a glass of water or reading to you. 
  7. Encourage your children to express their feelings, even ones that are uncomfortable. But also let them know it’s OK to say, “I don’t want to talk right now.” 
  8. Assure your children that their needs are still important and that they will be cared for, even if you can’t always provide the care directly.
  9. Spend your energy communicating with your children. Understand what they are asking, and make sure they understand what you are saying.
  10. As always, show them lots of love and affection. Let them know that although things are different, your love for them has not changed.

The information in this section is cited with permission from CANCERCare, an American national nonprofit organization. For more information, visit the CANCERCare web site, call 1-800-813-HOPE (1-800-813-4673) or email info@cancercare.org.

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