For many decades, cancer was a taboo topic that most adults would try to shield their children from. Even today, many Americans wait until the last moment to tell their children difficult news.
But experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering and around the country have come to recognize that parents should communicate with children about a diagnosis as soon as possible. “There is increasing support for the idea that children do better in an environment of open communication about the cancer coupled with responsiveness to the child’s needs,” explains social worker Barbara Golby, who oversees Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Kids Express program.
Established in the early 1980s, the program is designed to help adults with cancer communicate with their children about their illness.
When to Start the Conversation
“We now know that children are often very sensitive to and aware of more than adults think they are,” explains Ms. Golby.
Although reactions differ by child, age, and situation, experts say that in most cases, it’s a good idea to communicate with your child soon after a cancer diagnosis so that they don’t learn about the news in another way or imagine worst-case scenarios.
Ms. Golby says that one of the only times an adult might want to consider waiting to have a conversation is if his or her own feelings are still out of control.
“At Memorial Sloan Kettering we tell parents that it’s OK for a child to know that you are upset and feel the need to cry,” she notes, “but to take care not to overwhelm the child. Let the child know that it’s normal to feel sad or worried. Then reassure the child that you have help and support available from other adults in your life, and that he or she is not responsible for taking care of you.”
Once the adult feels more settled – perhaps because he has more information and understands the situation better – it’s time to communicate.
How to Broach the Topic
How to best reach a child depends on his or her age and stage in development. In discussing a parent’s cancer with a school-age child, for example, it’s important to use the proper name of the disease and find ways to reassure the child that she did nothing to cause the illness.
In communicating with teenagers, on the other hand, it’s often important to explain that there is no right or wrong way to feel, and that there are other adults who can listen and help.
“We have to stay with where each child is in terms of processing the news; every coping style and situation is different,” Ms. Golby explains.
Other tips and strategies for opening up the conversation are on our recently updated Kids Express web page.
The Kids Express Program also offers private consultations with a social worker familiar with these types of situations, and support group meetings for parents and for children whose parents have cancer.