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Answering Kids' Questions About Cancer

When a family member has cancer, talk to kids honestly and openly about it.

BY Jane Hill
PUBLISHED March 14, 2012

When a family member has cancer, children have questions. The important thing is to talk honestly about it. “In most cases, children who are truthfully told what’s happening from the very start will be less anxious than children whose parents try to avoid answering questions,” according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) website.

Questions will vary depending on their age and level of maturity, but it’s important to make sure the channels of communication are open. In Susan Niebur’s family, for example, a close family friend became the go-to person for her young boys. She told them that any question they were afraid to put to Mom or Dad could safely be asked of that friend. Other families have tried a question box, or “worry box,” in which children can put their written questions for later discussion. If that method appeals to your child, make sure you check the box every day and find a quiet time to talk about the question.

The ACS’s publication “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing with Treatment," is a good source for advice on how much information to give children and how to handle questions, such as “What if people ask my child about the cancer?” To listen to an hourlong podcast called “Helping Children and Teens Understand When a Parent or Loved One Has Cancer,” visit cancercare.org/tagged/children.

Honesty doesn't mean telling kids everything. It means not telling a lie.

In that podcast, Lori Wiener, PhD, head of psychosocial support and research at the National Cancer Institute’s pediatric oncology branch, explains that honesty doesn’t mean “telling kids everything.” It means not telling a lie. You may also find it helpful to write down what you want to say and pick a place that has few disruptions. Use the word “cancer,” and other words they are likely to hear from friends or others, such as chemotherapy. Ask them if they have heard about the disease and what they have heard. Often, you can clear up misinformation they have picked up.

Whereas young children are seeking information and reassurance, teens usually know where to find information and have a different set of questions, says Wendy Griffith, LCSW, a social work counselor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She suggests teens check out websites, such as nowwhat.org.au or cancerreallysucks.org, which address their relevant issues. The latter site was created by teens for teens.

Recognizing this truth, she and a colleague at M.D. Anderson tweaked the CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery) model to help teens cope. For example, teens often take on added family responsibilities and then shoulder guilt because they’d rather be out with friends doing what teens do. Though they are capable of verbalizing their concerns, they are more likely to want to share their thoughts with peers, particularly someone who shares their situation. For that reason, Griffith advocates finding a group for teens.

“It gives them a place to talk freely, problem-solve with each other and process their feelings,” she says. “It’s a very supportive dynamic,” and a lot of them stay in touch long after the sessions are over.

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