Talking to Your Child About Cancer

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By Marisa Minor, Department of Social Work

dadanddaughter.jpgA cancer diagnosis can create a variety of questions for patients who have children. The first question many parents ask is, "How do I talk to my child about cancer?"

Whether you're wondering how to tell your child about your diagnosis, treatment, progression or recurrence, there are quite a few things to consider before beginning these important discussions.

To start, consider your child's age and developmental stage. Some children are too young to verbalize questions and others may be too afraid to ask. Also, what does your child already know about cancer?  

What is the best approach?
It's common for parents to protect their children by withholding information that may be upsetting, but research shows the following:

  1. A parent's cancer diagnosis affects a child whether or not the child is informed of the condition. 1
  2. Anxiety levels are higher in children who aren't informed about their parent's condition, compared to children where the issue is discussed.
  3. For parents of teenagers, an important aspect of coping is ongoing communication between the teens and their parents during the course of the illness. 2
So, what does this research mean to parents? Simply put, it means that honest, age-appropriate communication is best.

How do I talk to my child about cancer?
First, it's crucial to say the word "cancer." This is essential so the child will not associate the parent's diagnosis with another illness children can catch, like the flu or a cold. The following are common questions many children have, and they're important points to consider while talking with your child:
  • Can I catch cancer?
  • How does cancer happen?
  • Is it my fault my mom or dad got cancer?
  • Will my mom or dad die from cancer?
Remember that children may not ask these outright, but many will be wondering about them. Because children pick up on social cues, they may sometimes create scenarios in their heads far worse than reality when not given honest communication about what's happening.

Honest and age-appropriate communication with children models the behavior that it's OK to ask and talk about cancer. 

What behaviors should I watch for?
If your child has exhibited behavior changes since a cancer diagnosis in the family, it may be a sign they're anxious but not talking about it. Some behavior changes to watch for include:
  • regression, such as reverting back to thumb-sucking, bedwetting, etc.
  • depression or excessive sadness
  • decline in grades
  • anger or outbursts
  • physical complaints, such as frequent headaches or stomach aches
  • withdrawal
Many of these behaviors are common and age-appropriate, but you might want to seek additional support if the changes are associated with the timing of the diagnosis and are unusual reactions for your child. Also, be sure to inform your child's teachers and school counselor about your cancer, as they can help watch for behavior changes and provide support when needed.

Where can I get more support?
Help is available if you'd like more information on answering questions and helping your children cope.  

The Department of Social Work at MD Anderson created the KIWI program: Kids Inquire - We Inform. The program includes the use of Kid Kits, which are backpacks filled with age-appropriate tools to aid families in helping children and teens cope with their parent's cancer.

KIWI also includes the CLIMB® (Children's Lives Include Moments of Bravery) support groups for children, teens and parents, as well as a children's video called "Kid to Kid: Learning to Cope When Your Parent Has Cancer," which explains cancer, treatments and common questions children may have when a parent has cancer.

In addition to the KIWI program, there are many helpful community resources, websites and books with information on talking to children and teens about a parent's cancer diagnosis. Your social work counselor at MD Anderson can help connect you with appropriate resources and offer additional support as you embark on this journey.

To learn more about these programs, or to speak with a social worker, please call the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195.  

  1. Kornreich D, Mannheim H, Axelrod D. How children live with parental cancer. Primary Psychiatry. 2008;15(10):64-70.
  2. Su Y, Ryan-Wenger NA. Children's adjustment to parental cancer: a theoretical model development. Cancer Nurs. 2007;30(5):362-381.

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