Talking to your kids about cancer is tough. Here’s advice from a Kansas City expert

Getty Images
·4 min read

It’s not going to be easy telling your kids that you or a loved one is dealing with cancer, something many families face at some point.

There is no one true way, no step-by-step guide that works for every child. Some might understand, while others might blame themselves.

The Star spoke with Annie Seal, a certified child life specialist and the children’s program director with Turning Point, a University of Kansas Health System program that assists people living with chronic and serious illnesses. Seal has been there since 2007, helping parents navigate this tough conversation.

Here are some key ideas to keep in mind.

Try not to hide anything

Be open and honest with your children. As a mom, Seal often tells parents that they want their kids to get information from them instead of someone else. It’s not ideal for a child to overhear a parent’s cancer diagnosis over the phone or from a kid on the playground at school who heard about it from a parent.

Some parents aren’t comfortable sharing that much information with their kids or even calling it cancer. Like any other complex topic, it’s crucial to acknowledge both the kids’ and the parents’ fears and concerns.

It’s normal and expected to get emotional. Tears shouldn’t prevent the conversation. Otherwise, a child might not bring up this topic because it made their parent cry.

“As a parent, we just really need to acknowledge that, and if we do become emotional talking about it with our kids, then we have to validate that,” Seal said. “I know that I’m getting upset talking about this, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to talk to you about this. It just means that this is a hard thing to talk about and this is a hard thing on the family.”

Know when to stop

Kids don’t have great attention spans. They might get bored or check out because the information is too much for them to handle in one sitting.

Seal said to look at children’s body language for cues on when to stop talking about it for the moment. They might get up and find a toy or tablet to play with, walk out of the room or say they don’t want to talk about this anymore. Seal said parents tend to talk too much and ignore these cues. It’s OK to pause the conversation and come back to it later.

It’s important to acknowledge children’s feelings and tell them that you understand that they’ve checked out for now but that you can talk about this another time.

“I’d rather my kids try to navigate this with my help than get into the world as adults and have to figure this out without having practiced it with a parent or a caring adult with them when they were younger,” Seal said.

Find common ground

If your family doesn’t have an open communication style, don’t start now. Seal said it’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to be able to say everything because of a tragic event.

Tailor the discussion to your family’s strengths. If your kids like to get on the internet and research information for themselves, ask your doctor for some safe websites where they can get the correct information. Have your child write questions down that you can take to a doctor if that’s something your kid does.

It’s not paint-by-numbers, and that’s why it’s so important to recognize how your child takes in information. Does your kid want to know every single detail or do they only care about the basics?

A 16-year-old’s concerns will be much different than a 6-year-old’s. The older child will get that life is going to change going forward. The younger kid may realize that, too, but they’ll also ask if that means they can’t play soccer anymore or does that mean someone else is making dinner.

Looking for more help?

The American Cancer Society has a guide on how to tell children that a parent has cancer. It covers topics such as the best time to talk about it, regular check-ins with your children before and after treatment, and reassuring them that it’s not their fault.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting