Helping Kids Whose Parents Have Been Diagnosed with Cancer
You just found out that you have cancer. The dreaded “C” word. You probably have a lot of questions on your mind. For example, what course of treatment will you receive? Which doctor will you use? What is your expected survival rate? How and when will you tell your kids? How can you help your kids understand and cope? In this article, we will address these latter two questions.
How and when will you tell your kids?
As parents, we want to shield our kids from things that can hurt or upset them. However, keeping your cancer a secret can be more harmful than telling your kids about your cancer. You can and should refrain from telling your kids about your cancer until you have all the basic information to address the questions they’ll likely have. What kind of cancer do you have? How serious is it? What is going to happen now? Once you have the information assembled, promptly call your kids together for a family meeting. Choose a calm, quiet setting (i.e., your family den . . . with the television turned off). Maintain a calm and positive environment when the family meeting begins and throughout the meeting. Announce directly that you have been to the doctor and have been diagnosed with cancer. Explain the basics of what cancer is . . . don’t assume your kids know about cancer. (Note: kids often assume that cancer may be contagious. Therefore, you will need to provide them assurances that it is not.) As you provide your kids with the rest of the information about your cancer, present the information as calmly and confidently as possible. Your kids will, in large part, take their behavioral cues from you. Even if your condition is imminently terminal, it’s ok to say that, but communicate that in a calm and confident manner. For example, you might say, “The doctors say that I have a 15% chance of surviving two years. Since 15% is a low percentage, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that I’ll beat the odds, but, if I don’t, I’ll go be with Grandma and Grandpa in Heaven. Do you remember hearing about Heaven in Sunday School?” The older your kids are, the greater the detail that you can provide your kids. Don’t forget to talk to your kids about how your cancer will affect them. For example, you may say, “Dad and I will be going to the hospital once a week, every week for a while. During that time, you’ll stay home with your loving nanny Jenny. Dad and I will be back home with you every night . . . you’ll just be with Jenny during the day.”
How can you help your kids understand and cope?
Don’t expect your kids to ask all their questions and exhibit their reactions immediately in your initial family meeting. Kids typically need to think about things for a while. Their questions will develop over time. Make sure that they feel comfortable coming to you with their questions. Their reactions will develop with time as well. Expect your kids to go in and out of hope, grief, anxiety, anger, fear, and a wide range of other emotions. Make sure they feel comfortable talking with you about these too. Your kids may also benefit from speaking with a counselor or with other kids whose parents have or have had cancer. Ideally, you can recommend counseling or support groups (or other social connections to kids who have been-there-done-that) and have your kids choose to accept your recommendation. However, if you see your kids struggling to cope (i.e., becoming withdrawn, misbehaving, or having trouble concentrating), it may be time for you to “strongly recommend” counseling or support groups. You may even volunteer to attend counseling or a support group with your kids.
Keep everything in your family’s life as normal as possible. For example, if you have always had “family day” on Sundays, then you should, to the best of your ability, maintain that tradition after your diagnosis is delivered. If your nanny always takes the kids to school, continue with that trend.
As time passes, your kids may develop emotional reactions to secondary issues. For example, if you and your spouse are spending a lot of time in hospitals and clinics, your kids may feel as if you no longer pay attention to them. Even though they may know that you have pressing matters to attend to, their sense of emotional abandonment may be significant. You need to be on the look-out for these emotions and respond to them promptly. Even if your energy is limited these days, you still have response options: you can have your kids sit by your bedside after school and tell you about their day.
Now that you have been diagnosed with cancer, you will need to attend to your medical and psychological needs while also balancing the needs of those you love. By handling your kids as referenced above, you can help your kids understand and cope with what is happening to you (and to them because they love and depend on you).
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