Talking to children

Telling children about a cancer diagnosis can be hard. You may be finding it difficult to know what to say.

The information on this page provides advice and support, and includes ways that Maggie's can help.

How to tell your children

You may find that you have to process the news yourself first, as this is an emotional time for you too. 

  • Try and plan when you are going to tell them. If you’re feeling upset, you may find having someone with you helps. This could be your partner, parent, close friend or another adult that your child trusts.
  •  If you need to plan your words, dropping into Maggie’s can help, as you can talk through your strategy with our cancer support specialists. It can help to rehearse what you need/want to say. Your specialist cancer nurse will be able to give tips and advice too. 
  • If you have more than one child, try and tell them at the same time, or as close together as you can. Sometimes it helps to tell the older child first, so that they can be prepared as you talk to the younger ones.
  • A quiet setting helps, and you can take your time. Find a comfortable familiar setting.
  • It’s best to avoid telling the children just before bedtime, as they may need time to process things before settling down for the night.
  • Give the information as simply as possible, and in small chunks. You don't have to explain too much at once, as it may be overwhelming for them. 
  • Answer any questions as honestly as you can, and if you don’t know the answer, say so. Check their understanding of what you’ve said.
  • Let the children take things at their own at their own pace. They may close the conversation, change the subject or return to a normal activity. It may seem they’re not taken it in. Resist the temptation to continue the conversation as they may need time to process the information.
  • Let them know you are there for them if they have questions later. Try not to make every conversation an intense one about cancer.
  • Let the children know how they can helpand perhaps involve them in little tasks that help them feel part of what is going on.
  • Teenagers may want more in depth information. They are likely to use the internet to find out more, so may need to be guided to appropriate websites.
  • Older children away at university or college will also feel better if they can be more involved. As young adults, they may feel excluded if you don’t include them in what is going on at home. They can seek help and support from counselling services at university, and let their tutors know the situation.

How you can help your child

There are steps you can take to help your child manage the emotions and feelings they are experiencing:

  • Let them know they can talk to you anytime about anything they are worried about. Some children ask lots of questions, whilst others seem to manage by focusing on play, TV, or friends, and not ask anything.
  • Try and keep to familiar routines, where possible. Prepare them in advance for any changes in routine, such as different people picking them up from school, etc. 
  • Assure them that they will always be safe, loved and looked after. Children can feel very insecure when changes are happening. They’ll still need boundaries, if they play up, so they feel safe. Let them know you understand things may feel different for awhile, but your love hasn’t changed.
  • Prepare the children for any physical changes they may see, as you go through treatment. For example, thereIF may be times when you are extra tired or feel unwell.
  • Explain that some people lose their hair whilst having chemotherapy, or have surgery that makes them uncomfortable for a while. Explain that they may need to be gentle around any surgical wounds, or give you a chance to rest sometimes. 
  • Give them little jobs to do to help, but understand if they don't feel like it sometimes.
  • Talk with your children’s nursery, school or college, about what is going on at home. If the staff know, they can give extra support, or make special arrangements for any exams or coursework and understand any changes in your child’s behaviour. They can also let you know if they have any concerns.
  • Encourage them to spend time playing, and spending time with friends. They need the chance to still be children, and it will help things feel more normal.
  • Plan some treats to look forward to - everyday life can feel to be on hold, whilst you go through treatment. For both you and your children, having some time together, whether it’s trips out, a meal, or a break away, can give something to look forward to.
  • You may not feel up to normal strenuous activities, but try to have individual time with each child.
  • Find age relevant books and reading material to help explore their questions and concerns - reading through books together can help stimulate questions and offer reassurance. You can find suggested reading books for children on various cancer websites. Maggie’s centres have a library, as well as a list of age appropriate books. 
  • Take up any offers of help - you may have school runs to organise, after school activities, and other parts of the children’s routine that need planning ahead. Cancer treatments make people tired, as well as travelling to and fro to hospital. Family and friends are usually glad to help out, so you can focus on you or your family member’s treatments.

Children's worries

Children all react differently to hearing about cancer. 

Very young children will perhaps not be aware of what is happening, but will sense the changes in routine, and that you may be away having appointments, tests and treatment.

Some children may worry that you have cancer because of something they did. It could be something as simple as having misbehaved, or fallen out with you temporarily. They may feel guilty about things they have done.

If children are excluded from what is going on, they may imagine things are worse than the reality. Children can be sensitive, and feel they are not important enough to know what is going on.

Depending on their age, they may have heard of cancer in the playground, or on television. They may be anxious that they might catch cancer too, or that you  and others close to them will die.

Children's behaviour

Many children cope well, and seem to take things in their stride. However, you may see changes in how your children behave and react. 

Babies and toddlers may become more clingy and fretful – simply because routines are different, and things feel unsettled.

Pre-school and early school age children may regress a little in behaviour, which can make you feel worried and guilty. They generally settle over time, but may need reassurance and support. 

It can be hard for children to put their worries into words, and so they may start misbehaving, being angry, or quiet, and not able to concentrate on schoolwork. 

Children as they get older, become more independent, and they may worry about the impact your illness will have on their own lives, and then feel guilty.

Teenagers may spend more time away from home, or in their room.

When to seek further help

If you’re concerned that your children are finding things difficult, then you can ask for further help. Sometimes children don’t know why they’re feeling angry, guilty, tearful or withdrawn.

Younger children may ‘act out’ and misbehave at school. Older children can feel disloyal expressing frustration about how things are at home, so may keep their feelings bottled up. Children can sometimes need additional psychological support.

As a parent or grandparent, you’re possibly the person who can talk to them about how they feel. However, if they find this difficult, it can be helpful to find support for them. This might be through a trusted family member or friend - someone who they can talk to away from the situation, or perhaps through their school or college.

If you think your child might benefit from counselling and help with dealing with how they feel, you could ask your GP, health visitor (for children under 5), and the school/college about any support they provide locally. Some local hospices provide family/child counselling and support too.

Many of our centres offer support for young people with parents with cancer, through Teen’s days (14 - 18) and Kid’s days (7 - 13). There’s support for you too, and if you’re concerned about your child or teenager, drop into your nearest Maggie’s. You can speak with experienced staff about your concerns, and they will be able to offer practical advice and support.

When cancer cannot be cured

Sometimes cancer comes back, or may be more advanced when diagnosed. 

For many people advanced cancer is still treatable, even if it cannot be cured. 

If things change, and you or the person you care about is becoming more unwell, it’s important to let the children know. 

They are likely to notice things are changing, so will be less scared if they’re know what is happening.

What now?

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what the children are feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone. 

Check out our links to further information.

Pop into Maggie’s to talk with our Cancer Support Specialists and connect with others in a similar position to yourself.

Last review: Mar 2022 | Next review: Mar 2023

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