Before you have the talk, check to see if your child is open to talking with you at that time. If he isn't feeling well or he's distracted, it may be a good idea to find another time to talk.
Begin by inviting him to talk. This will give him the chance to tell you if it's a good time.
You can say:
- "I'd like to talk with you about something important. Is this a good time?"
- "Would now be a good time for us to sit and talk about some news I've gotten?"
Once you have found a good time to talk, there are some important things to keep in mind.
Listen to your child.
Good communication starts with good listening. Throughout the talk, make sure to show your child that you are listening to her. This will help her know that your conversation is important to you.
Follow these tips for good listening:
- Look your child in the eye.
- Sit still during the conversation.
- Don’t interrupt your children when he’s talking.
- Nod your head to so your child knows you understand or agree.
- Lean in toward your child when he’s talking so he knows you are paying attention.
Remember, you don’t have to tell your child everything at once.
It takes time for children to understand their feelings, so be prepared to talk with your child several times. Many children can’t take in a lot of information at once.
During your talk, look for signs that she’s learned enough for one day. These signs may include:
- Being unable to focus
- Having trouble sitting still
- Looking tired
- Changing the subject
Repeat the information.
You may find that you need to tell children the same information a number of times — or that you’ll need to repeat it in different ways. This is normal no matter what age your child is.
Say the words, “I have cancer.”
The most difficult part of the talk may be saying the words “I have cancer” out loud. But it’s important to be honest, and naming your illness is a key part of that. Saying “I have cancer” out loud gives both you and your child permission to talk about it.
Telling others, especially your children, may also make your cancer seem more real to you.
If you find it difficult to explain cancer to your child, you aren’t alone. Get tips for explaining cancer to a child.
Ellen & Sons
Stacey & Fred
Tell your child it’s okay to feel scared.
Children and teenagers may react to this news differently. Some may be scared. Some may cry. Others may stay calm at first as the news sinks in. Older children may focus on what can help you get better.
However your child reacts, encourage him to tell you how he feels about the news. It’s important for children to know that you understand how they feel. Reassure your child that his feelings are normal and that it’s okay to feel scared.
Here are some ways to talk about feelings:
- “It can feel scary to talk about cancer. A lot of people would think this is scary.”
- “I can see that this news worries you. It’s okay to feel that way.”
- “It upset me to find out I have cancer, so I understand it might upset you, too.”
- “When people find out they are sick, they can have lots of different feelings. The people who love them can also have lots of different feelings. They might feel mad, sad, or scared — or all of those feelings at once. They can also feel normal. All of this is okay.”
- “You can talk with me about any feelings you have, but please make sure to come to me if you have strong feelings that bother you or won't go away. We’ll figure out what to do to help you feel better.”
Encourage your child to ask questions.
Let your child know that you may not have all the answers, but you will do your best to tell her what she wants to know. You can say, “I may not always have the answer to every question you have, but I will do my best to find out the answers.”
Give your child healthy outlets for his feelings.
Children often show you what they feel instead of telling you. Sometimes children try to hide their feelings to protect their parents. So it’s important for your child to have healthy outlets for his feelings.
Encourage him to share his feelings with other people in addition to you. Suggest other people he can talk to if he has questions or concerns, like teachers, friends, other family members, or a member of the clergy.
Try saying something like:
- “Sometimes it feels better when you share your feelings with someone else. It’s okay with me if you talk with someone about how you are feeling.”
- “As we deal with my cancer, you will probably have different feelings about it. I want you to know that you can talk to me about how you are feeling or what you are thinking. You can also talk to [name of relatives or friends] or to your teacher or [other name] if you want.”
Some kids may not feel comfortable starting this conversation with an adult. So it may be helpful to ask another adult to talk to your child after you have told him about your cancer. Invite someone your child trusts, like a family member or family friend, to check in with him.
Also, make sure you let your child know that it’s okay to say, “I don’t feel like talking right now,” if that’s the case.
Susan & Naomi
Stephanie & Gerard
Jeanneen & Roxanne
Manage your own feelings.
How you handle your own feelings when sharing the news about your cancer can be important. It's natural to worry about how you will react when talking with your children, even when you’ve prepared for it.
Sometimes children find it hard to understand when parents don’t show their feelings. So when you start the talk, let your child know what you are feeling. If you are feeling sad, tell your child that you are sad.
If you feel like you are going to cry, stop and take a moment to compose yourself. It won’t hurt your children to see that you get sad or cry. If your child tries to comfort you, remember to praise or thank her for showing her concern. Begin again when you are feeling calmer.
When you handle your own feelings well, you show your child how she can handle her feelings. You can say, “Since I found out that I have cancer, I have a lot of different feelings. Sometimes I’m mad, sometimes sad, and sometimes scared. I also feel normal sometimes. You might see that I’m not happy, but I don't want you to think it's because of something you did. Sometimes it's just being sick that makes me unhappy. I might be more crabby than usual when I don't feel good. But you can always ask me if you wonder what's going on.”
Stephanie & Gerard
Remember that children may respond differently.
Every child will respond to the news of your cancer in his own way. Some children may ask a lot of questions in this first talk. Some may not ask any. Some may show lots of different feelings and some may not show any. Some may act as if nothing is different or wrong.
All of these responses are normal. Make sure to let your child know that whatever he's feeling is okay. Then keep the door open to talk again. You can say, “Even if you don’t have any questions now, you can come back to me and ask me anything you want to know.”
Get more information about how children of different ages might react — and how you can respond to them.
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Talk about what your child learned.
After you have talked with your child, you may want to get an idea of how much she has understood. A great way to do this is to ask her to tell you what she heard you say:
- “Can you tell me in your own words what we talked about today?”
- “I told you some things about my cancer. I know it can be confusing. Tell me what you know so far.”
Asking your child to tell you what she heard will help you see what she does and doesn’t understand. This will give you a chance to clarify anything that might be confusing to her.
Remember you can talk again.
The talk you have with your child may not go exactly as you planned. Or you may have to tell your child about your cancer before you feel fully prepared. Your child may also have questions that you don’t know how to answer right away.
Remember that you’ll need to go back and talk with your child again. This is just the first of many chances you will have to talk and to answer his questions.
Stacey & Fred
Talk about next steps.
End the talk by telling your child what happens next for both of you. This will help them her know what to expect.
For younger children, you may only need to share what will happen in the next day or 2. Older children may be worried about what will happen in the coming weeks or months.
Either way, for now you only need to talk about your short-term plans. For example, you might say, “The plan for the next week is for me to see Dr. Smith who will help me make some decisions about how to make my cancer go away. When I go to these appointments, you will be at school and I expect to be here when you get home. If I’m not, Aunt Jane will be here to make dinner and help you with your homework.”