Once you learn that your child needs treatment for cancer, your first instinct may be to avoid telling him too much information. Or to leave out details that you think are too scary.
It’s natural to try to protect your child. But although it won’t be easy, you need to be honest with him about the treatment he needs. The sooner you tell him, the better. This way, you can help him know what to expect and focus on giving him your love and support.
And you don’t have to do it alone. Your child’s health care team -- doctors, nurses, social workers, and other professionals -- can give you advice on what to say and how to say it. You may even want to have them sit down with you when you talk to your child.
How you explain the cancer treatment will depend on your child’s age. Keep in mind that along with your words, your child will be taking note of how you say them. Above all else, stay calm and hopeful.
For Children Younger Than 3
At this age, your child won’t be able to grasp a lot about his illness, but he will pick up on any stress you feel. Give him lots of extra hugs and hand holding so he feels your love and support.
Very young kids often worry about being taken away from their parents. Assure your little one that you won’t leave him at the hospital. Tell him that when the treatment is over, he’ll be able to come home. (Check with your doctor ahead of time to make sure that is the case.)
If a certain part of treatment will hurt, don’t hide it from your child. Let him know ahead of time. If not, he may be scared to go through it again.
For Children 3 to 5 Years Old
Use simple words to explain that the treatment your child is getting will help him feel better. It may help to use dolls or stuffed animals to explain how it will work. You can also get him used to the idea by reading picture books about cancer or hospitals.
Kids this age like to know what to expect, so ask your doctor if you can take him through the treatment center ahead of time. When your child can see and touch the machines and supplies that his care team will use, he might feel less nervous. Still, be honest. Tell your child that although some of the treatment may hurt, the doctors and nurses will make it less painful.
Plan things that can help him take his mind off treatment, too. For instance, you can choose a special toy for him to hold or story you’ll read together during treatment.
For Children 6 to 12 Years Old
Older kids may have already heard about cancer treatment from friends, on TV, or online. This doesn’t mean that what they know is correct. Ask your child about what he’s heard so you can clear up any misunderstandings. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions, including which parts of treatment may be painful or how it will make them feel.
If your child wants to know something that you can’t answer, say so. Let him know that you’ll find out and get back to him. When you’re honest, your child will know he can confide in you about his own feelings.
What Else Helps
Start small. It may be hard for your child to process a lot of the details at once. Start with general facts, then offer more information as he asks for it. If it seems like he can handle the basics, you can start to share more.
Practice what to say. Rehearse your words before you talk to your child.
Talk to other parents of children with cancer. They’ll have good insights to share on what worked or didn’t work for their kids.
Get creative. Tap into your child’s interests to explain the treatment. For instance, if he loves video games, you can say his treatment is a way to seek and destroy bad cancer cells.
Get support. If you’re unsure how to answer your child’s questions, call his doctor. She can help you choose what to say or put you in touch with another health care professional who can offer support.
Take a deep breath. This is a scary time for you and your family. But remember: more kids than ever before survive cancer. You have many reasons to be hopeful.