Q: [Young Kids] What is the best way for parents to explain breast cancer to their young children?
A: Sharing the news about your cancer diagnosis is never easy, and naturally uncomfortable. However, children are intuitive, and they will know something is wrong. The good news is, they are much more resilient than adults give them credit for.
It is important to discuss in a safe place where the child is comfortable sharing their feelings, often times, home. If you aren’t showing obvious signs of change, it may be helpful to have the conversation once you know your treatment plan. This way you have more information to share with your child and help answer their questions. You may even want to practice the conversation with another person or to yourself.
While your child’s age can be a key factor in how the information is presented, it is always a good idea to ask the child about their knowledge of cancer and start from there. Children 7 and younger will not need detailed information, while children 8 to 12 will want to know more.
Once you know how much they understand, be honest about what you know and most importantly, that they did nothing to cause this disease. Being honest will help them trust you, and help calm their worries and anxiety. Allow them to ask questions. Keep it simple, and in easy terms as their attention span isn’t very long.
If you’re unsure of your treatment plan or prognosis, it’s OK to say, “Right now there’s no way to know what is going to happen. But, the doctors have said there are very good treatments for my cancer type, and with treatment, the cancer usually does get better. When I know more, I’ll be honest with you about what’s going on.”
There is no one way the child should respond to the information. The goal is to find a balanced point of view, away from denial or consistent anger. The child should understand that cancer is serious, but not hopeless.
Children learn through modeling. Let them know that it’s OK to have different emotions. When a parent is feeling sad, it’s good to be honest about those feelings.
Marie Miao, is an oncology certified licensed clinical social worker for Hoag’s Family Cancer Institute and the High Risk Breast and Ovarian Cancer Clinic. She is also the program director for CLIMB, a support program for children whose parent has cancer.