Secrecy can make things worse
Some parents avoid talking about cancer because they want to protect their children. However research shows that children who are told about a loved one’s illness – particularly a parent’s – cope better than children who are kept in the dark.
Secrets can be difficult to keep. It can add to your stress; you may worry about whether you should tell or feel guilty if you don’t say something. You may need to change your routine without your children knowing which can be hard.
You can’t fool kids
Children are observant. No matter how hard you try to hide a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. Even if it’s not a parent with the cancer but a close relative, such as a grandparent, this can cause stress that kids may pick up on.
Children will notice changes at home, such as your sadness, whispered conversations, closed doors, an increase in the number of phone calls or visitors, and possibly less attention being shown to them. These signs may be more obvious to older children and teenagers but even young children can sense a change.
If your kids suspect there’s a serious problem and you haven’t told them about it, they may make up their own explanation. Their ideas are often worse than the real situation.
They have a right to know
Children can feel deeply hurt if they suspect or discover they have been excluded from something important to them and their family. Sharing information shows you trust and value them which can enhance their self-esteem. The diagnosis may also be a chance for your kids to develop emotionally. They may learn about living with uncertainty and how to cope when life doesn’t go to plan. This helps build their resilience.
They might find out from someone else
Ideally children should hear about a cancer diagnosis from their parents or someone delegated by their parents, particularly if it is the parent, a relative or close friend with cancer.
If, as a parent, you tell friends and relatives about cancer in the family but you don’t tell your children, there is a chance your kids will hear about the cancer from someone else or overhear a conversation. Overhearing the news can give your children the wrong idea. They may think the topic is too terrible for you to talk about or that they are not important enough to be included in family discussions.
Kids may also misunderstand information and think a situation is much worse than it is. They may feel afraid to ask questions. They might worry in silence or spread incorrect information to other children in the family.
Kids can cope
When kids are in a family affected by cancer, it can be tough on them and you may wonder how they will get through it. But there is evidence that, with good support, children can cope. Research shows that a key factor in helping kids get through difficult times is a close relationship with an adult who values and supports them, and accepts them for who they are. That adult can be a parent, a grandparent, a favourite aunt or uncle or a family friend. Whatever the connection an adult who provides support can help a child through tough times.
Children need a chance to talk
Talking to your children about cancer gives them the chance to tell you
how they feel and lets them know it is okay to ask questions. Sometimes kids will open up to adults who are not their parents. They may feel guilty about burdening a sick parent or taking up the healthy parent’s time so they will confide in someone else like a teacher or step-parent. As a parent it is important to encourage your kids to talk about their thoughts and feelings with you or someone else who is trustworthy.
You are the expert
With careful thought and preparation, you can use your knowledge of your children to talk with them about cancer. This information aims to help you use that knowledge – firstly to tell your kids about the cancer and then to keep talking throughout the cancer journey. Sometimes it may take a few attempts before you find the best way for your family.
When you can’t talk about cancer
While some people are able to be open about cancer, others find it hard to discuss the illness particularly with children. Some parents don’t want to tell their children at all and try hard to hide the diagnosis.
People have their own reasons for not telling children including cultural differences, family circumstances and the death of a close relative from cancer. Sometimes you may not know how serious the cancer is and you want to wait to find out more before telling your kids.