Why tell children about the cancer treatment?

Children sense problems and imagine the worst.

Children will often imagine the worst if they’re not told what’s going on. They see a tired parent who may be less patient with them and who feels sick a lot, and may think that the parent doesn’t love them or that they’ve caused the parent’s illness. Even very young children can sense when something is wrong. Children are very aware of the parents’ and caregivers’ feelings. And once children have come up with their own explanation about why something is happening, it can be very hard to change their minds.

Children are likely to find out anyway.

You probably know that children often hear adults talking about subjects not meant for them – even when the child is busy and doesn’t seem to be listening. If they think something is being kept from them, some kids will even look for ways to listen without being noticed. When children overhear these conversations, it confirms that adults are keeping things from them. Children also pay a lot of attention to non-verbal clues such as facial expression and tone of voice, sometimes more than they do the words that are said. So even if they don’t hear a discussion about it, they may sense something is wrong.

Side effects will be obvious once the treatment begins.

When cancer treatment starts, the child will see side effects like tiredness, weight changes, hair loss, or vomiting, and believe any number of things. They see that the person is sick and might think that he or she is going to die. They might think that others in the family will get sick, too. Not knowing what’s going on or how to cope with it can be terrifying to a child.

It takes energy to keep secrets.

Finally, the effort it takes to keep such secrets may rob the parent of precious energy. This energy can be put to better use by making children feel safe and prepared for the changes that will happen in the family.

If the adults don’t bring it up, the children may assume that they’re not allowed to talk about it, and come up with their own reasons no one has told them. To avoid this, children need to be told ahead of time about the kinds of side effects that are likely during cancer treatment. There are websites and books to help with this. See the lists in “To learn more” section.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: April 27, 2015

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