10 Tips for Talking with Your Child about Cancer

Mom and daughter having conversation

Open communication builds trust between parents and children.

Being diagnosed with cancer raises all sorts of questions. And if you’re a parent, you’re likely facing one question in particular: What should I tell my children?

There are specially trained social workers at Memorial Sloan Kettering who can help you navigate this conversation and all that comes after it. They are a part of MSK’s Talking with Children about Cancer (TCC) program, which can be a resource as you continue having conversations with your family. Below are suggestions from members of the TCC committee.

  1. Prepare yourself. Who do you want in the room when you have the conversation and where should the it take place? Choose a place that puts your child at ease, like the dinner table or on the living room couch during a family meeting.
  2. Be open. Open and honest communication encourages trust. It also helps your child feel less alone with their thoughts and feelings during what can be a confusing time.
  3. Use the word “cancer.” Calling cancer by its name educates your child and distinguishes your illness from their experience of the common cold, bump, or “boo-boo.”
  4. Share your feelings. By talking about your own feelings about your cancer, you are modeling healthy coping skills and letting your child know that it is OK to have these feelings. This can help your child talk about feelings if they wish.
  5. Encourage questions from your child at any time. Let your child know that you are there to talk about your illness and answer questions. This shows openness and support. If you do not have an answer to a question it is OK to say, “I don’t know” and that you will do your best to find the answer.
    Talking with Children about Cancer
    Learn about the Talking with Children about Cancer Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
  6. Keep the conversation going. Engaging in ongoing conversations with your child is helpful as changes arise, so you can face the cancer experience together as a family.
  7. Know that every child is different. Children have individual ways of reacting, expressing themselves, and coping. This can happen even between siblings. Do your best to be curious, listen, understand, and respect how your child is feeling.
  8. Keep routines the same. When someone in the family has cancer, there can be changes in lifestyle and day-to-day schedules. Lean on your network of support to help maintain as much consistency as possible for your child.
  9. Avoid making promises you cannot keep. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Offer realistic expectations when discussing plans with your child and be clear about an alternate plan.
  10. Seek additional support. Allow yourself and your child to get the emotional and practical support you both need, whether it comes from family, friends, or professionals. School professionals can also be instrumental in guiding your family, in addition to giving insight about how your child is coping at school.