This is a guest blog from Caroline, the founder of the Fruitfly Collective, about how to talk to and support your children throughout your cancer diagnosis.
One of the reasons why it so hard to tell your child that you have cancer is the primal feeling of wanting to protect them from any harm, worry or concern.
The trouble is that children easily pick up on things, and have amazing imaginations. Even if you think you’re hiding your grief, pain, and emotions supremely well – they know something is up. Not telling them, or giving them partial or incorrect information can be more worrying than the truth.
Here are some tips to help start talking:
It doesn’t matter how old your child is, the key aims are to reassure them, show them love and security, and to open a safe space for them to ask questions.
Well, this will depend on the child’s age and development.
Most young children need to simply hear that cancer is a sickness, that you are trying to get better with the help of the doctors. Don’t be surprised if they want to go and play and react like nothing has happened.
For older children you could say something simple like:
“I have an illness called cancer. It means some lumps are growing inside my body that shouldn’t be there. I have many doctors and nurses who are helping me”. They are likely to ask lots of questions, so perhaps prepare yourself with some answers.
Children can often believe they have caused the cancer by behaving badly or thinking bad thoughts, and they might think cancer is contagious. So tell them, you can’t catch cancer, and nothing they did, thought or said caused the cancer.
Also, keep in mind that nearly every child will either ask or think the question ‘Are you going to die?’. This is the worst question ever but it needs to be addressed. Try not to brush it off, but instead say something like ‘Nothing is for certain yet’. It shows you are not shutting them down and makes them feel more secure.
Teenagers like the truth delivered in a non-patronising way. Often sitting next to them to talk rather than opposite them works better. It’s all about giving them space, and not being too confrontational and staring into their eyes.
Look for any changes in your child’s behaviour as this might be a clue to how they are feeling.
For example, they may return to younger behaviours such as thumb sucking or wetting the bed, or suddenly become afraid of something they were not previously before. Some children display more anger, some complain of headaches/stomach aches and some children will have no reaction which can be hurtful but it’s their way of processing it. All these responses are normal.
What can you do to make this easier, especially when your life is upside down too? Basically all the support revolves around giving them security with boundaries, facilitating good communication, and showing them love. Ask for help from family, friends, and your child’s school.
Finally, it often helps parents with their fears when I share these four lessons I learnt from my experience of teaching over 1000 primary school children about cancer.
1) Children are genuinely curious about cancer – even those who are recently affected. They have the capacity to understand if explanations are age appropriate.
2) Children have an amazing ability to deal with the truth that adults often underestimate, and this is largely because they don’t have the same fears as adults.
3) Children enjoy the opportunity to speak about cancer – especially those affected.
4) Every child has some degree of awareness of cancer whether it is news from the media, public health or charity campaigns, or shops on the high street. Most of what they believe is incorrect.
For resources to help with these difficult conversations, go to www.fruitflycollective.com
Caroline Leek is the founder and director of Fruit Fly Collective, a multi award winning not for profit organisation that focuses on improving the public’s understanding of cancer as well as supporting individuals and their families affected by cancer.
The information and content provided on this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.
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