How can I make sure my child understands what I tell them?

Young children need less information than older kids. They are also more likely to be confused by the information they’re given. They may be able to repeat what you told them but still not really understand it.

One mother who talked about surgery for “cancerous tissue” in her lung reported that her children thought she had Kleenex® in her body.

You and other caregivers can use play and art to help the child understand what’s happening. It will also help to give the child some time each day to ask questions, such as at bedtime or during breakfast. You may need to repeat explanations many times before a child begins to understand.

Children, especially those under age 12 or so, may feel guilty and be afraid that they somehow caused the cancer. This is because of the natural way young children think. They should be assured that nothing they thought, wished, said, did, or didn’t do caused their parent’s cancer or the side effects of the cancer treatment. You may have to repeat this over and over, especially to younger children.

Children often don’t understand the severe tiredness that’s a common side effect of treatment. They may expect that mom or dad will bounce right back after the last treatment. But, in reality, being very tired may go on for many months. It’s a good idea to explain that cancer treatment and side effects may last for a while. And even after treatment ends, it will take time for your body to heal and for things to go back to “normal.”

Assure your children that you’ll tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it. Any time you talk with your children about cancer, ask them if they have questions or if there’s anything else they want to know. One good thing to say is “other children wonder about…” which gives you a chance to address concerns you suspect they have.

Children also learn about cancer from other sources – from school, TV, the Internet, classmates, and from listening to other people talk. Some of this information is correct but a lot of it is not. It’s best if the child can go to their parents about things they may hear. Ask your children to tell you what they’ve heard about cancer so you can correct any wrong information. Remind them that everyone responds to cancer treatment in their own way, so one person’s experience can’t be compared to another’s.

There are also certain myths about cancer and its treatment that your children may hear. Some examples are: “all people die from cancer,” “cancer is contagious,” “exposing cancer to the air during surgery makes it spread,” and “radiation treatment makes people radioactive.” None of these are true, but there are people who strongly believe them. If your child can’t talk openly with you about cancer, he or she may worry for no real reason. If your child wants to know more about cancer, please see the “To learn more” section. You’ll find toll-free numbers and websites there that you can use to get the up-to-date and age-appropriate information.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 29, 2015 Last Revised: April 27, 2015

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