There is evidence to suggest that children always know that something is wrong when a parent has cancer. Children as young as three have a sense of something being different and that there have been changes in the parent and within the family.

  • Children often overhear things, such as phone conversations
  • Children can see changes in the parent with cancer
  • Cancer and treatment often disrupts normal routines
  • When a parent is having treatment, children may be cared by other people, such as grandparents
  • Children pick up on changes in emotions around them, and are conscious of distress in adults

There is no evidence that talking to children about cancer is harmful. Being aware that something is wrong, but not knowing why, can be confusing and distressing for children. Being open and honest with children about cancer is beneficial. When a parent is unwell, the findings from research is that children want to be informed and involved:

  • Children want to have as much information as possible about what is happening
  • Children want to feel involved in caring for their sick parent

Not talking to children about cancer may actually be harmful:

  • Children often have ‘magical thinking’, which mean that they can catastrophize and imagine that the situation is worse than it actually is
  • Children can self-blame and assume that changes in the parent are the result of something they have done, such as being naughty
  • Children will worry about the future and what will happen to them
  • Children will worry about the welfare of the ‘well’ parent and whether they will become unwell too
  • Children may worry that the sick parent does not love them anymore
  • By not talking to your children yourself, you have no control over what information the children receive and their understanding of the situation
  • Children may receive incorrect and frightening information about cancer elsewhere
  • Children can feel excluded and this can affect their relationship with their parents

The Benefits of Talking to Children

Talking to your children about cancer is beneficial, but possibly one of the most difficult things a parent ever has to do:

  • It provides reassurance that the child is loved
  • It provides reassurance that they will still be looked after and do the things that they like doing
  • They will be reassured that the illness is not catching and that the other parent or carer will not get ill
  • It reassures children that they will not get cancer themselves and can prevent any other misconceptions about cancer
  • It will help the child feel more involved in caring for the sick parent
  • It provides preparation for the possibility that the situation may get worse

Broaching the subject of cancer with children can be difficult, and as a parent you will instinctively know what will work best with your children. However, here are some tips that may be helpful:

  • Perhaps start by asking the child for their understanding of what is happening. You may be surprised that the child knows more than you thought
  • Ask the child about their understanding of cancer
  • Try not to use euphemisms and use the word cancer at least once in the conversation
  • It might be helpful to explain the cancer as a lump, but ensure that the word cancer is used in the explanation
  • Provide reassurance that the child is loved and will always be loved by the parent with cancer
  • Provide reassurance about what will stay the same and that the child will always be cared for
  • Reassure the child that they cannot catch cancer and that they can still be physically close with the parent
  • Becoming emotional when talking to children is not problematic, it gives children permission to be upset too and alerts them to the seriousness of the situation
  • Do not be concerned if the child seems not to have understood – younger children may require the information to be repeated on several occasions
  • Children often need a break from strong emotions – allowing the child to go and play may provide a break and can give the child time to absorb the information
  • Try to be as honest as possible and not give false hope
  • Provide simple suggestions about how the child can be involved in caring for the parent with cancer
  • Encourage questions and try to be as honest as possible in your answers
  • Encourage open communication and reassure the children that they can come back for more information at any time