September 8, 2022

A safe environment in a scary time

Mother hugging her young child.

It’s only natural for parents to want to shield their children from things that are scary or upsetting.

But when it comes to a parent’s cancer diagnosis, telling a child in an age-appropriate manner is the most beneficial option for their emotional well-being.

“Kids have a really keen sense of being able to pick up on what’s wrong or that something’s going on,” said Dr. Lori DuBenske, who is a cancer psychologist at UW Carbone Cancer Center. “They can pick up on a general tension, and that mom and dad are sad and anxious. If they don’t hear what’s wrong, they might rely on their own imaginations, and it could be something scarier for them than what’s really going on.”

DuBenske frequently talks with cancer patients who are anxious about how much information they should share with their children, and how to even start that conversation. She talks over each patient’s specific fears and what strategies they can try. Some parents worry that the news will be too upsetting and feel guilty about traumatizing them.

“I reassure them of how resilient children are,” she said. “They don’t want their children to face difficulties, but helping them through this can help with positive growth and coping.”

While the language used will depend on a child’s maturity level, she advises parents to be as truthful as possible about their illness and let children ask questions. DuBenske said even with difficult topics, it’s important not to mislead children about treatments and outcomes.

“When children ask, ‘Are you going to die?’ there’s a gut reaction to say, ‘I’ll be fine,’ but you need to make sure you’re not making false promises,” DuBenske said. “I encourage patients to reassure children in a way that’s truthful for that moment, like ‘I’m seeking out experts at UW, they know how to treat this cancer best. We’re very hopeful the treatment will be helpful. I will let you know if anything changes.’”

That honest, open conversation is just as important when it’s the child’s own illness or that of a sibling, according to Dr. Emily Schweigert, an inpatient health psychologist at American Family Children’s Hospital. Some parents want to avoid using the word “cancer,” or use euphemisms that seem less scary, but she advises talking in plain, concrete language to avoid confusion.

“Your kids trust you more than anything in the world,” she said. “When parents use the word ‘cancer’ comfortably, it reduces the fear and anxiety for children.”

DuBenske and Schweigert said explaining a diagnosis may happen in multiple steps, and it should be treated as an ongoing conversation. Sometimes a child can get upset and need to take their own space before talking more, or if a child is very young they might not understand right away.

Schweigert also advises it’s okay to be emotional while talking with your children about cancer. Rather than trying to mask sadness, showing how you really feel sets the example that children can freely share their own emotions with you too.

“It’s about giving them permission to have all of their feelings,” she said.

Keeping a child’s routines as normal as possible helps reinforce a sense of comfort and security. It’s also a good idea to establish another trusted adult that they can talk to if they don’t want to discuss certain things with a sick parent.

Going through a cancer diagnosis is a stressful, difficult situation for any family, and it’s helpful to seek help and guidance from professionals as well as peer support groups.

Gilda’s Club Madison offers a rich variety of free services to cancer patients, survivors and their loved ones. Program Director Kirsten Norslien said in addition to the adult support services, they also host activities for children of all ages where they can socialize, have an outlet for their feelings and meet other children whose families have been impacted by cancer.

“Knowing they’re not the only one is so huge, especially for kids who are at an age where fitting in is so important,” she said.

Norslien added that Gilda’s Club Madison’s parent organization, Cancer Support Community, has an online booklet offering advice and strategies for talking with children about cancer.