How to Talk to My Child About My Partner's Diagnosis
Telling a child or young person that someone close to them has cancer is never easy.
If your partner has cancer, you might both think it’s best to keep the news from your child or delay telling them. But secrecy can make things worse. It adds to your stress if you are worrying about when you should tell them or feeling guilty because you haven’t yet. Plus you can’t fool young people. They will notice changes, sadness or whispered conversations and suspect something is wrong.
Research shows that being open and honest is one of the best ways to help children/young people cope when a parent or carer has cancer. Sharing information shows you trust and value them.
Thinking about how to tell them can seem overwhelming, but the tips below can help you work out how to tackle the first cancer conversation.
How to tell your child your partner has cancer
- Prepare yourself
- Decide when and where
- Tell your child – openly and honestly
- Explain what will happen next
- Help them get more information and support
- Reassure, and keep communication going
- Make sure you are ready. Talking to a child about cancer can be confronting and difficult. Don’t attempt it while you’re still in shock or dealing with strong emotions.
- Talk through your concerns, and perhaps practice what you want to say, with another adult. You could ask the oncology social worker, psychologist or other health professional at the hospital for some advice on what to say, or call a CanTeen counsellor to talk it through: 1800 835 932.
- Get advice from other parents who’ve been through this in our online Parent Community. It can be a relief to know you’re not the first to grapple with this, and get advice about how they broke the ice with their child.
- Be prepared for how you think your child might react – although they may not react in the way that you expected or wanted them to. Common reactions include sadness, fear, anger and shock or disbelief (they may seem to have not heard you or not react at all – which generally means they need some time to process it). Find out more about how to manage your child’s reaction to cancer.
- Be ready for questions. If you don’t have the answers, it’s okay to say you don’t know and that you’ll find out and tell them.
Decide who you want to be there with you
- Decide if you want another adult to be with you. In a two-parent household, it may be a good idea to talk to your children together.
- Or if you choose to go it alone, maybe talk through what you’re planning to say and any tough issues with your partner or another adult. Or call a CanTeen counsellor to talk it through: 1800 835 932.
Decide when and where
You are the expert on your child – knowing how they react (and how to calm them) when they are angry or upset, what makes them laugh – so you will know the best ways and times to talk to them.
- There is no ‘right time’ to tell your child, but generally if you delay too long they will have worked out something is wrong. Trying to keep it secret can be stressful, and your child will probably sense that something is wrong and wonder why you’re not telling them.
- Tell them as soon as you feel able. Even if you don’t have all the information yet tell them what you can, and that as soon as you know more you will tell them.
- Choose a time and place where there’s unlikely to be any interruptions or distractions.
- If you have more than one child it may be better to talk to each one separately. They may need to know different things because of their age or developmental stage, and they may be more willing to ask questions and more open about how they’re feeling if their siblings are not there too.
Tell your child – openly and honestly
- Start with questions to check what they know about cancer.
Children have different ideas about what causes cancer and might have misperceptions (for example, that everyone who gets cancer will die, that you can catch cancer or that they caused the cancer). You might need to explain that just because Granddad died from cancer 10 years ago doesn’t mean your partner will, because theirs is a different type and treatments have improved since then.
- Make sure they know your cancer has nothing to do with anything they did, said or thought.
- Be honest and straightforward. Talk to younger children in a way that’s appropriate for their age but still use the correct terms.
- At this stage, the basic information they need is:
- the type and site of the cancer
- how it will be treated
- likely side effects of the treatment and impacts on your partner e.g. not being able to work
- how the cancer is going to affect them and your family life.
- Don’t be afraid to express your feelings. This lets them know it’s okay to show your emotions, and that you don’t always know what to do or say. Reassure them that your family can handle this.
Explain what will happen next
- After they’ve had time to process the news, explain what is going to happen next and the changes that will affect them. For example, if your partner is going to be in hospital, let them know for how long and who will take them to school or sport.
- Reassure them there will be a plan and that you will let them know about any changes.
- Don’t bombard them with too much information at once. They’re probably pretty overwhelmed right now, so give small amounts of information so they can process what is happening.
Help your child get more information and support
- Young people often cope with uncertainty by seeking more information. There is a LOT of information about cancer on the Internet and not all of it is sound. So point your child to reliable information that is written specifically for teenagers or children, such as CanTeen’s website and books (all available on the website): canteen.org.au
- Let them know who you are going to tell and discuss who they can get support from. For younger children, explain that you will need to let their teacher and principal know. For older teens and young adults, ask them if they want to tell anyone, or want you to let people know.
- Encourage them to talk to you, other family members, friends or a health professional or cancer counsellor.
Reassure, and keep communication going
- Assure them they will always be looked after, and that while your partner may seem distant, he/she still loves them.
- This is the first conversation of many you and your child need to have about your partner’s cancer and what’s happening. Make sure they know they can talk to you and ask you questions anytime.
> It can be really helpful to talk to other parents who have or have had kids at a similar age to yours when they or their partner was diagnosed to find out how they handled this conversation. Join our Parent Community.
> Ask an oncology social worker, psychologist or other health professional in your partner’s treatment team for advice, or call a CanTeen counsellor: 1800 835 932.
> Cancer Council’s booklet Talking to Kids About Cancer includes advice on talking to children/young people of different ages about cancer. Although the book focuses on when a parent has cancer, much of the information is relevant for anyone who needs to explain a diagnosis of cancer to children.
> Macmillan Cancer Support (UK) booklet Talking to children and teenagers when an adult has cancer
For your child:
> CanTeen’s website has information written for young people who have a parent with cancer.
> You can also download or get a copy of CanTeen’s ebook Dealing with your parent’s cancer
> Camp Quality’s Kids’ Guide to Cancer app is for children aged 8-13 who have a parent, sibling, friend, or loved one with cancer and answers common questions about cancer and includes stories from other children affected by cancer.