By Erin Buck, Ph.D., and Martha A. Askins, Ph.D.
When parents are faced with changes to their appearance or bodily functioning as a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment, they often struggle with what to tell their children. To protect their kids emotionally, parents sometimes delay or avoid talking to children about cancer treatment.
But that can lead to confusion, isolation and anxiety for children. These conversations can be helpful for both kids and parents.
Here is our advice for talking to your kids about physical changes resulting from cancer.
When should I talk to my children about physical changes?
Timing of the conversation depends on your child's development and maturity. School-aged kids and adolescents benefit from preparing for a parent's surgery weeks to months in advance, but very young children tend to benefit from a shorter preparation time span.
It may not be possible to give your child the optimal amount of time to prepare, so make the most of whatever time you do have. Just remember: advance preparation is key.
What's the best way to discuss these physical changes with kids of different ages? Or do you suggest a one-size-fits-all approach?
Considering your child's age and developmental level is important in discussing these physical changes.
- Ages 2-5: Very young children will benefit from simple facts and reassurance. When you begin a conversation with your young child, consider which words will best help him or her understand. Someone with oral cancer may say, "I have a bump in my mouth, called a 'tumor,' which doesn't belong there. The doctor will do surgery to take it out. I will need to stay in the hospital while I get better and then I will come home. While I am in the hospital, the doctors and nurses will take good care of me, and you can call me and visit me."
- Ages 6-10: School-aged children learn best when information is presented both verbally and visually. They like pictures, diagrams and activities that give them a concrete understanding of how science works in the world around them. Consider using props (e.g., dolls or stuffed animals) that will help you explain the before and after physical changes, emphasizing the necessity of the surgery and how it will help make life better, despite creating a physical change.
- Ages 11 and older: Because adolescents are capable of understanding information in a straightforward way, they may experience heightened anxiety. If your child is scared or anxious, it's okay to acknowledge that you have those feelings, too. However, balance expressions of worry with reassurance, confidence and hope.
Adolescents tend to think a lot about appearances. This is a time in their lives when their bodies are maturing and they begin to focus on how they look and how they are perceived by others. As a result, they may be especially concerned about your appearance. One helpful approach is agreeing to a plan for getting the word out so that others can be prepared for the changes and react with sensitivity.
Your children will benefit from honest reassurance. Explain to them in simple terms the purpose of the surgery, anticipated changes and the healing process.
Give your kids a chance to ask questions and express their worries. Let them know that things will be okay, despite physical changes. Share examples of things that they can visualize and understand -- e.g., a previous injury that gradually got better.
Remember, reassuring your kids is a process -- one that requires multiple conversations and support throughout your recovery.