These are basically my notes from a presentation by Child Psychologist Lorna Wood at an event run by Kenzie’s Gift, so don’t take them as gospel, but they might provide some food for thought.
When thinking about what to say to your child who has cancer, consider also what you are going to say to siblings.
Why should we talk to kids about what’s going on?
Because kids have a right to know about things that affect their family so they can manage it in their own way.
Will they cope with what I tell them?
Children’s ability to deal with information can be underestimated. If we don’t explain things, in a way they understand, they may draw their own conclusions, which may not be right.
There is a saying that a sad truth is better than a mis-truth. If we say nothing, they may fill in the gaps and sometimes uncertainty or what a child imagines can be scarier than the truth.
Talking helps to increase understanding and provides an opportunity for children to process their feelings, feel less isolated and request more information if they want it.
What has worked before?
Consider changes your family has gone through before. Moving house, changing schools, the death of a pet. Were there ways of preparing your child for these things or expressing the feelings around them that worked well for you?
When things are happening quickly, we don’t always get the chance, but try to think about what you want to say before you say it. When you do start to talk, it is quite likely to trigger your own feelings. You might not be comfortable with this, but if it happens, your children will understand. Consider having a support person with you, who can help you to explain.
How should we talk to them?
There is no right or wrong way, but you might find there is a way that works for your family. You may not get it right first time and how you talk about serious things might evolve over time. Your child’s age will influence how you express the information. If there are words you commonly use in your family to describe things, you may be able to use them in this context. Share some of your feelings and encourage your child to express theirs.
What/how much should I tell them?
Be clear about who is ill
Say the name of the illness
Explain your best understanding of what will happen.
If you child asks a question you don’t know the answer to, say that you don’t. If you think you can find out, tell them that you will try to find the answer for them.
Talk about what will happen to the child you are speaking to. What will change, what will stay the same. Who will take care of them.
Separation, which is often inevitable in treatment, can be a source of grief.
Behaviour is your clue
Children are not always able to express themselves verbally. How they behave will tell you how they are doing. There are likely to be changes to your children’s behaviour and they can be difficult to cope with when everyone is under stress. Some common things you might see in their behaviour are:
Anger, guilt, clinginess, setting themselves unreachable standards, frustration, excitability, inappropriate happiness, fear, rebellion, regression to earlier stages.
You can help your child process their feelings through talk, play, music, art, games or other forms of expression.
If you feel that a child’s behavioural changes are persisting and causing upset and disruption, you may need to seek help.
It’s not always you
Sometimes, for all kinds of reasons it might not be you your child will open up to. It might be someone in your extended family, or a family friend. It could be someone they come in to contact with in their treatment, or someone you seek help from. Whatever works for your child and your family is fine.