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Wellness Wednesday: How to Talk to Kids About Cancer

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Nearly everyone has ties to someone who has – or has had cancer. Cancer can take over a family’s lives in a blink of an eye and when you’re dealing with such horrible news, it’s hard to communicate this with others, especially our children.

Reena B. Patel (LEP, BCBA) renowned parenting expert, licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of shares initial steps to talk to children about cancer, communication is key, as leaving them in the dark can really have an advert affect.

What children would want to know most? In a developmentally appropriate way.The name of the cancer, such as breast cancer. 

  • The part of the body where the cancer is
  • How it will be treated
  • How their own lives will be affected

But why tell them? 

  • Secrecy can make things worse.When you tell them they are in the know and can begin to cope. They also may accidentally find out through another family member.
  • Your child is more resilient than you think and oftentimes, they know when something is up. They can sense when something is wrong, notice changes or whispers.

Language to use

  • Use the term “cancer.” It gives your children specific information and reduces confusion and misunderstanding.
  • Younger children need a simpler explanation. For older children, a more detailed explanation helps reduce feelings of helplessness and fear.

Remember to:

  • Reassure your child that they did not do anything to cause cancer.
  • Make sure they understand that cancer is not contagious.
  • Let them know that it is okay for them to have many different feelings and that you have many of the same feelings too.
  • Set realistic but hopeful assessment of the situation, and focus on how the cancer will be treated.
  • Create a judgement-free zone and let your child know that they are free to ask any questions.
  • Use clear, specific terms. Avoid indirect phrases such as “passing away” or “sleeping forever.” Children may confuse sleep with death. They may fear dying in their sleep or think that a person could wake up from death.
  • Work with a family therapist if needed.
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