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Cancer

Helping Children Understand and Cope

Truth is better than deceit, and honesty fosters trust and a sense of security. In other words, never evade your children’s questions and never lie when you answer. It is important, however, to always take time to clarify your child’s question. “Is Daddy ok?” coming from a young child whose father tripped and fell down the stairs probably means, “Is Daddy hurting?” or “Does he need help?”

How much we share with our children depends on their age, their interests, and our own needs for privacy. In general, young children probably need less detail than older children.

Be aware of your child’s development level and how this affects his or her reasoning and understanding before launching into a complex explanation about the illness and its cause. Abstract thinking does not develop until adolescence, so be sure to keep your conversation age appropriate.

For younger children, receiving the truth in “installments” may be easier to process. For instance, when asked, “Can doctors make Mommy better?” it is perfectly acceptable to make the distinction between symptom relief and cure.

Overall, the best advice is to acknowledge the stress. It’s helpful for children and adults to be reassured that what they are experiencing is real.

Preschoolers 
  • Use language your child knows and understands.
  • Keep explanations very short and simple.
  • Use dolls and puppets to illustrate the hospital visit.
  • Forewarn the child of anticipated changes in the affected parent’s role. For instance, “Daddy has a serious sickness. That is why he’s been so tired and sleepy lately. The doctors are trying to help him with this sickness, but he won’t be strong enough to play ball with you for a while.”

School-age children
  • Give the child the name of the disease. Write it down. Emphasize that nothing the child did caused the disease, and point out that it cannot be “caught” by hugging or sharing a snack with the person who has it.
  • Plan for making sure the child’s needs are met and their daily routine is kept as normal as possible. If necessary, ask relatives or neighbors to help with parental responsibilities.
  • Give the child an overview of what doctors are doing to manage the disease.
  • Give examples of what the child can do to help the affected parent feel loved (i.e., draw a picture; tell Daddy you love him, etc.).
  • Make sure the child knows that his or her parent’s moods are not the child’s fault.

Teenagers
  • Give as much detailed information as possible.
  • Be prepared. Any reaction – including anger – is normal.
  • Answer every question, including the ones about transmission, as fully and honestly as possible.
  • Give the teen options for doing further research on their own, pointing out recommended and reliable resources.
  • Be flexible regarding daily chores and routines; don’t expect your teenager to volunteer to take on extra duties or hospital/doctor visits.
  • Make sure the adolescent has someone to talk to from outside the family – preferably someone they trust and who will keep their conversations confidential.

Leave the door open for ongoing conversation. Children understand events differently over time, and their capacity for grasping complicated issues develops as they mature. And be certain to be open with children about the ways adults seek and obtain assistance for their problems, including going to a therapist. In doing so, you model an important coping strategy – recognizing the need for help and obtaining it.