Jamie Aten, Ph.D.
As a disaster psychologist I’ve helped people all over the globe by listening to their trauma stories and helping them tell their trauma stories. But I felt helpless when I found myself in the midst of my own personal disaster—diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at the age of 35 (now almost five years no evidence of disease). Telling my three young daughters about my cancer diagnosis was the hardest conversation of my life. I was tempted to sugarcoat the truth and more than once caught myself starting to minimize how serious the situation was. I did my best to break the bad news in a way that was truthful yet hopeful. Here are some tips I learned that I hope will help you navigate the conversation no one is prepared to have.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children.
It’s natural to feel anxious about delivering bad news to your children. Take steps to make sure your needs are being met by other adults. Don’t put that burden on your children. Keep in mind that children often follow their parents lead when it comes to responding to a crisis. Children are like sponges and absorb their parents’ reactions, words and energy. Delivering difficult news is never easy. It’s okay to struggle, cry, and make mistakes—I know I did. But remember you are there for your children, not the other way around. Before you share with your kids, give yourself the time you need to notice and process your feelings so you can be fully present to your children’s needs and feelings.
Answer your children’s questions with age-appropriate concepts.
When I was diagnosed with cancer my daughters were ages four, seven and 10. Thought I chose to share the news with them together, I knew that each one had a different developmental ability to understand the situation. When your children ask questions, answer them to the best of your ability, using words and concepts that are appropriate for their developmental stages. Likewise, be sure to create space for questions your children might have. Be honest if you don’t know what to say. When possible, assure them that that you’ll look into it and get back to them. But if you make this promise you must also make sure you follow through. Be authentic with your children but remember to talk to your children as children— not adults.
Resist the natural temptation to put an unrealistic positive spin on the situation.
Throughout my cancer journey—and, if I’m honest, my life
—I tried to look on the bright side of everything. It was incredibly difficult for me not to minimize the seriousness of what I was facing when I told my children. It took all that I had not to do so. I realized distorting the reality of what I didn’t want to face did not serve anyone. You may be tempted to paint an unrealistic positive picture of a difficult situation for the sake of your children—and maybe for yourself. But your children will be best-served if you are as honest as possible about what you are facing. You need not offer all the worst-case scenarios, but do be realistic about the gravity of the situation.
Reassure children that the adults are handling it.
Be aware sometimes children may feel responsible for events that are entirely beyond their control, even a parent being fighting cancer. Be sure to let your children it is not their fault. I knew that this kind of news could leave my children feeling afraid and vulnerable. Sometimes the challenges we are facing are out of our control. This can leave us and our children feeling like life is in a free fall. Though I couldn’t control my diagnosis, I could play an active role in how I was going to deal with my cancer, like seeking medical care. When you reassure children that the adults are managing the situation, you give them permission to be children.
Seek to instill hope among your family. Keep in mind that hope doesn’t mean everything is going to work out how you long for things to be. Hope doesn’t mean the problem will go away. Instead think of hope as what keeps you going in the face of adversity. Instill hope into the conversation by embracing what has helped your family find strength, meaning, and comfort in other difficult situations.
Jamie Aten, Ph.D. is a disaster psychologist, author, and speaker. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest book is A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press, January 2019). In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.