The Importance of Talking to Children about a Cancer Diagnosis – Q&A with our Child Specialist

By: Sari Ticker

Why is it important to tell children about a cancer diagnosis in the family?

  • Children are incredibly observant and usually can sense that something is wrong.

Although they may not be able to fully articulate what is happening, children pick up on the tone of the home, changes to daily schedule, as well as mom and dad’s moods.  When we don’t open up the discussion to include children, it sends a message that they are not allowed to talk about cancer or ask any questions, thus closing the communication channels.  Moreover, they may not feel important enough to know what is happening in the family.  Including them in the discussion affirms their value, helps to answer their questions, and may even ease their worries of what they might be thinking is going on.

  • Children will try and fill in the gaps to their understanding with inaccurate information.

Mental health professionals term this phenomenon “magical thinking.” This can be particularly concerning for younger children, who most likely fill in the gaps of their understanding with information that is not accurate such as, “If I do all of my homework, mom will get out of the hospital sooner” or “Grandpa has cancer because I fight too much with my sister.” Talking to children can ensure they understand that their behavior is not linked to their family member’s illness and reduce the likelihood of feelings related to guilt and fear. It is recommended to have children echo back what they understand as a way to catch if magical thinking is happening and/or if confusion remains.

Children are resilient.

Children have a lot to learn and experience as they grow, and it can be challenging to watch them struggle with a family member’s diagnosis, the same way it is difficult for adults.  It is important to keep in mind that children have a tendency to bounce back to their normal routines, schedules, and moods, much better than we do as adults. Children who feel safe and secure, and that they have a sense of how their day-to-day routine is impacted, tend to demonstrate short-lived disruption or behavior change.


How to talk to children about a cancer diagnosis?

  • Honesty is key.

It is important to be honest with children about current and upcoming changes that are happening in the family. If they don’t hear it from a parent, they are likely to hear it elsewhere, and then may not trust mom or dad to be honest with them when there are updates. Being open and upfront from the start keeps healthy communication channels open.

  • Flexibility

It helps to be flexible regarding when and where your child wants to talk about cancer.  It is okay if a child/teen lets you know they don’t want to talk about it when you approach them, and that could be due to a number of reasons unrelated to cancer. Remind them that they can approach you anytime and ask if there is a better time that works for them.

  • Admitting when you don’t know.

It is okay, and even preferred, to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. When (not if!) that happens, that can be a moment where you and your child can look it up together, or go to the next doctor’s appointment and have them ask your doctor or nurse.  This reinforces that their questions have value and that the family will work to help clarify whatever they can, while also being able to model that it is okay to ask questions when we don’t fully understand.

What supports are available for my child and family at the Cancer Wellness Center?

  • Counseling- Family or Child Counseling

From initial diagnosis through treatment and beyond, the free counseling services provided at the Center help normalize the emotions and issues raised by a cancer diagnosis. The professional clinical staff, comprised of psychologists, counselors and social workers, provides people diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones with coping strategies and practical suggestions to help them better function and improve their overall quality of life.  Bereavement counseling is also available for those who have lost a loved one to cancer.

  • Parent Consultation

This one-session consultation is intended for parents when they, a family member, or a child is living with cancer. Parents will learn how a cancer diagnosis can affect the family and will gain useful strategies for adjusting to new family routines and roles.

If you are interested in receiving more information on these services or would like to register, please call Katie Hull, LCSW, our clinical intake associate at 847-562-4981.