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Talking to children about cancer

Children can usually tell rather quickly when something is wrong, so it’s always best to inform them as soon as possible. However, timing is important, and this type of conversation should take place in a calm and relaxed environment, allowing the child time and space to digest the news.

 

It might also be worthwhile to have points written down beforehand, both to reduce any anxiety on the part of the person delivering the news and to put the child at ease.

 

Bear in mind that the younger the child, the less specific the information they require.

Talking to toddlers (0-2 years)

Toddlers have no understanding of disease and death, but they are experts in body language and can easily sense if something is wrong. So although it may seem pointless to talk to them, it is important to include them somewhat.  

Helpful tips:

  • Offer them a very brief explanation of the disease
  • Keep any conversation short and light on information
  • Let the child go to and from the conversation
  • Use simple, specific words and avoid metaphors
  • Let the child know you understand and recognise their feelings by saying something like: “I understand you are upset, because I am also upset.”
  • Provide them extra comfort by letting them sit on your lap while you speak

Talking to small children (3-6 years)

Small children need to feel included, especially in stressful situations, even though it can be difficult for them to understand something intangible. Small children are very egocentric and believe that everyone perceives the world as they do. In addition, their language skills mean words and certain phrases are taken literally and can be misunderstood.

 

Helpful tips:

  • Give a brief explanation of the disease
  • Physically point out to the child which part of the body is affected (use a doll or yourself)
  • Ask the child what they have understood and correct any misunderstandings
  • Encourage the child to ask questions
  • Make it clear to the child they are in no way responsible
  • Tell them your doctors are doing their best to help you

Talking with schoolchildren (7-12 years)

By the time a child has reached school age, they have a better understanding of the concept of causality as well as the consequences of their actions. They can also grasp the meaning of abstract words like ‘death’ and ‘forever’ and how a serious disease or death can be. However, they may struggle to understand uncertainties and timelines.

 

Helpful tips:

  • Give a more outlined explanation of the disease
  • Physically point out to the child which part of the body is affected (use a doll or yourself)
  • Explain what the doctors are doing to help
  • Ask the child what they have understood and correct any misunderstandings
  • Encourage the child to ask questions
  • Tell them your doctors are doing their best to help you

Talking with teenagers

When your child becomes a teenager, they have developed the ability to think hypothetically and logically. This enables them to be more critical of any information they receive. Teenagers also understand the finality of death and can distinguish between the disease and the cause. They may look for information on their own, which can either reassure or worry them.

 

Helpful tips:

  • Provide as much information as your teenager asks for
  • Keep them informed – Don’t hide anything from them
  • Explain that you are receiving great support from your doctors and nurses
  • Answer any questions that may arise
  • Encourage your teenager to ask questions

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