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How to talk to your kids about your diagnosis

Telling your children you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic health condition is a tough conversation. Here's how to make it easier.

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Telling your children you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic health condition is one of the toughest conversations you can have. Although it’s hard, taking the time to share what you’re facing with your children honestly will help the whole family as you go through treatment.

Process your emotions first

Learning that you have a chronic condition is a shock, whether you’re newly diagnosed or you’re facing a relapse. Talking with your children will likely bring up strong emotions — in them and in you. By honestly facing your own emotions first, you’ll be able to focus on your kids’ reactions when you talk with them. It might be helpful to talk with a friend, therapist, social worker or someone from your faith community first, so you can work through what you want to say.

Pick the right time, place and people

When you decide to talk with your children, it can help to pick the right time and place for the conversation. Ideally, it will be in a private place, so your kids will feel free to ask questions, and at a time when you have enough energy for the conversation. If you have a spouse or partner, consider whether you’d like them to be there for support. You may also want to include a nurse, family counselor or other source of support.

Practice — but don’t overprepare

It’s good to prepare the kinds of points you want to make so that you can focus the conversation. But you won’t always have all the answers to your kids’ questions, and that’s okay. It’s reassuring for them to hear that you don’t know the answers but that you can find them out — especially if you can find them out quickly.

Share information by age

If you have children of different ages, be aware that they’ll have questions and worries about different things.

  • Young children: Preschoolers often focus on the near future. They need concrete, simple explanations of things they can see — for example, “I might lose my hair.” They likely won’t have a long attention span, so don’t overshare. In fact, saying less could be better than saying more
  • Elementary school-aged children: Kids in lower elementary grades might still need simple, short explanations of your condition. By upper elementary, kids are learning more about the body and how it works. You can give your upper-elementary children more details, such as the name of your cancer and the basics of your treatment.
  • Adults: Having a chronic health condition will change your relationship with your adult children. You will likely need to lean on them more for support with doctor’s visits, bills and medical decisions. It’s important to keep this line of communication open, even if they worry about you.

Although you can keep the facts simple, you need to communicate the truth to your children — that you have a chronic health condition and what that means. It helps if you can keep the tone calm and reassuring, but if you feel angry or sad, don’t be afraid to share that, as well. Being honest about how you feel shows your kids that it’s okay for them to share their feelings, too.

Tell them it isn’t their fault

One of the most important things you can tell your children is that nothing they did caused your condition. This may seem like a concern of only younger children — but even teenagers can feel responsible and struggle with guilt.

Prepare for their reactions

Your kids can have a range of reactions to your diagnosis. Depending on their age and their personality, they might feel:

  • Angry at the situation — or even at you
  • Confused about your health and what to do next
  • Childlike, going back to the kinds of behaviors they had when they were younger
  • Depressed or scared about what comes next

The most important thing you can do for your children is to let them know that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling, that they are still loved and that they can talk with you any time about their worries. It also helps to stick as close as possible to your normal routine so your kids have a sense of normalcy.

Keep the lines of communication open

The first time you talk with your kids might not go the way you want it to. Their emotions — and yours — might run high, or they might not be ready to hear everything you’re saying. Remember, this conversation is only a starting point. As long as you are open and honest with your children, you will show them that they can come back to you when they’re ready to learn more.

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References

  1. CancerCare. Talking to Children When a Loved One Has Cancer.  June 21, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2021.
  2. National Cancer Institute. Talking to Children about Your Cancer. September 26, 2018. Accessed July 9, 2021.
  3. MedlinePlus. Talking with a child about a parent's terminal illness. July 21, 2020. Accessed July 15, 2021.
  4. Prevention. How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Cancer Diagnosis.  June 1, 2019. Accessed July 15, 2021.
  5. Livestrong. Telling Others About Your Cancer. Accessed July 15, 2021.
  6. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. For Parents: Talking with Children About Cancer. Accessed July 15, 2021.