How to talk to your child about their diagnosis
It’s a conversation no parent ever wants to have, but sadly many have to. Talking to your child about their cancer diagnosis can be difficult and overwhelming. But talking openly and honestly about cancer and what to expect can reassure your child during this time of uncertainty and change, and build trust and security.
- Prepare yourself
- Decide when and where
- Decide who you want to be there with you
- Be open and honest
- Explain what will happen next
- Help them get more information and support
- Make sure you are ready. Talking to your child about their cancer can be confronting and difficult. Don’t attempt it while you’re still in shock or dealing with strong emotions.
- Talk through your concerns, and perhaps practice what you want to say, with another adult. You could ask the oncology social worker, psychologist or other health professional at the hospital for some advice on what to say, or call a CanTeen counsellor to talk it through: 1800 835 932.
- Get advice from other parents who’ve been through this in our online Parent Community. It can be a relief to know you’re not the first to grapple with this, and get advice about how they broke the ice with their child.
- Be prepared for how you think your child might react – although they may not react in the way that you expected or wanted them to. Common reactions include sadness, fear, anger and shock or disbelief (they may seem to have not heard your or not react at all – which means they need some time to process it). Find out more about how to manage your child’s reaction to cancer.
- Be ready for questions. If you don’t have the answers, it’s okay to say you don’t know and that you’ll find out and tell them.
Decide when and where
You are the expert on your child – knowing how they react (and how to calm them) when they are angry or upset, what makes them laugh – so you will know the best ways and times to talk to them.
- There is no ‘right time’ to tell your child about your cancer, but generally if you delay too long they will have worked out something is wrong. Trying to keep it secret can be stressful, and your child will probably sense that something is wrong and wonder why you’re not telling them.
- Tell them as soon as you feel able. Even if you don’t have all the information yet tell them what you can, and that as soon as you know more you will tell them.
- Choose a time and place where there’s unlikely to be any interruptions or distractions.
- If you have more than one child it may be better to talk to each one separately. They may need to know different things because of their age or developmental stage, and they may be more willing to ask questions and more open about how they’re feeling if their siblings are not there too.
Decide who you want to be there with you
- Decide if you want another adult to be with you. In a two-parent household, it may be a good idea to talk to your child together.
- If you’re a single parent, you might like to have an adult, relative or friend who has a strong relationship with your child, to be with you.
- Or if you choose to go it alone, maybe talk through what you’re planning to say and any tough issues with your partner or another adult. Or call a CanTeen counsellor to talk it through: 1800 835 932.
Be open and honest
- Start with questions to check what they know about cancer.
Children have different ideas about what causes cancer and might have misperceptions – for example, that everyone who gets cancer will die.
- Make sure they know their cancer has nothing to do with anything they did, said or thought.
- Reassure them that most young people survive cancer. Discoveries of new and more effective ways of diagnosing and treating cancer are being made all the time, leading to improved survival rates.
- Be honest and straightforward. Talk to younger children in a way that’s appropriate for their age but still use the correct terms.
- At this stage, the basic information they need is:
- the type and site of their cancer
Explain what will happen next
- Don’t bombard them with too much information. After they’ve had time to process the news of their diagnosis, explain what is going to happen next, step by step.
- Start simple and be guided by your child as to how much they want to know now. They can get more information from you and from their treatment team when they need it.
Help them get more information and support
- Having the right information can help children/young people dealing with cancer. Learning about their cancer and treatments can take some of the fear out of it. Point them to reliable and age-appropriate information (see Useful resources below).
- Decide together who needs to know about their cancer diagnosis. For younger children, explain that you will need to tell their teacher and principal. For older teens and young adults, discuss with them who they want to tell, and who they want you to tell.
- Encourage them to talk to you, other family members, friends or a health professional or cancer counsellor.
- Remind them that while no one will have exactly the same experience as them, there are lots of other young people out there who are living with cancer. Encourage them to check out CanTeen’s online community where they can connect with other young people with cancer[LH3] or read their stories. They can also contact CanTeen counsellors online.
> It can be really helpful to talk to other parents who have or have had kids at a similar age to yours when they were diagnosed to find out how they handled this conversation. Join our Parent Community.
> Ask the oncology social worker, psychologist or other health professional in your child’s treatment team for advice, or call a CanTeen counsellor: 1800 835 932.
> There is information about coping with a cancer diagnosis written for teenagers and young adults on CanTeen’s website:
> CanTeen’s online community is a place where young people (12-25 years) can access support, counselling, information and connect with other young people affected by cancer.