9 Ways You Can Talk To Your Children About Cancer Diagnosis In The Family

Talking to young kids about serious illnesses can be difficult.
A mother comforts her teenage daughter while sitting on the sofa at home
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A mother comforts her teenage daughter while sitting on the sofa at home

Last week the Princess of Wales announced her cancer diagnosis to the public — she explained it had taken time for her to explain the situation to her young children, Prince George, 10, Princess Charlotte, 8, and Prince Louis, 5.

Speaking to kids about a life-threatening illness is never easy, especially as it comes with a lot of questions from curious young minds.

Family psychotherapist Fiona Yassin who is the founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic says it can be even trickier if you’re trying to come to terms with the diagnosis yourself.

She said: “As parents we want to protect our children from difficult situations, but sugar-coating the truth or lying about what’s really going on, can be dangerous. Age appropriate honesty is incredibly important for children.”

How you can break the news to your kids

Fiona says the best way is to be honest and prepared for any questions. She has suggested these 9 tips to help you share difficult news with children.

1. Ensure you have a full understanding of the illness first

After a diagnosis you may be dealing with some complicated medical terms. Fiona says that before sharing the news with a child, it’s important you understand as much as you can about the illness.

This means you can be prepared to answer any questions the child might have.

To do this you can use resources from charities and organisations, as well as this you can plan what you say in advance to avoid tripping up on your words.

2.Keep the conversation age appropriate

Fiona says that although it’s important to be honest, you still need to be mindful of the conversation and details to ensure they are age appropriate.

This means using language and words your child will understand, and keeping sentences short and simple.

“Depending on the age of the child, you may want to use picture books, graphics or online articles to help you explain the illness and how it will impact you or the family member who is unwell,” comments Fiona.

3. Pick your time wisely

“Closeness and proximity are really important during this time and your child needs to know you are there for them. Do not overload them with information and then expect them to get on with their day as normal, such as going to school or going straight to bed,” advises Fiona.

Instead she says to wait for a weekend or a gap in the school holidays as you can create a safe space. Your family can also take as long as needed to work through what’s happening.

4. Be patient

“It’s important your child knows that the information you’re sharing with them is a lot to take in. Ensure they understand you are always available for questions and that you are happy to explain the situation in a different way if they need clarity,” explains Fiona.

This means knowing that it could take several conversations with your child to help them understand.

5. Be flexible

Of course no one can predict how a conversation will go, there may be difficult questions and big outbursts of emotions, so it’s important to be flexible and compassionate.

6. Inform the school

Be ready by informing your school that you are about to have the conversation with your child. This can help the school understand and support your child if there are any behavioural changes.

“It can also help to inform a wider network of friends and colleagues. But remember that it is your story to tell, and it should be told in a way that feels appropriate for you and your family,” says Fiona.

7. Share how you feel

Fiona advises: “Being honest with your emotions about the diagnosis, such as “mummy feels sad too”, can help encourage your child to share how they are truly feeling.”

Additionally it can be good to have another adult for support with you while you’re explaining a serious illness to a child, such as a partner, grandparent or friend of the family.

8. Avoid making promises that can’t be kept

It’s vital to stay as close to the truth as possible. Though it can be tempting to make promises to your child, such as “everything will be ok”, avoid jumping ahead - try to limit conversation to the present and near future.

9. Have compassion for yourself

“Know that there will be big emotions involved in this conversation, which go both ways - we call this bi-directional. Show love and kindness to yourself and do not expect too much from anyone in the family system during this difficult time,” says Fiona.

It can be a really tricky balance to strike, but the aim is to hold a space for your child whilst still holding a space for yourself.