The age of the child will, of course, play an important part in the decision as to what they should be told. All of the following is based on a 6- to 8-year-old child, with the expectation that you will modify the suggestions based upon the child's age.
- Tell her something. Don't hide the illness.
You can be sure the child knows that something is wrong, and, since they have wonderful imaginations, they often believe things are worse than they really are.
- Tell her that it's not her fault.
Since a child's world revolves around the child, they tend to believe that when something is wrong, it's their fault. It is imperative that they know that's not true.
- "Mom's recovery is not dependent on you, although you can be helpful."
The purpose here is to be sure the child knows that the progress of the illness is not her responsibility, while suggesting that a somewhat different behavior might be in order under the circumstances. This must be done with great delicacy, lest the child feel that Mom's recovery is dependent on how the child acts and -- if Mom gets worse -- believes it is her fault.
- Encourage and allow the child to help Mom in age-appropriate ways.
It feels good to help -- ex. bringing Mommy a glass of water.
- Tell her in the kindest way possible as much about the illness and it's effect on Mom as her capacity to understand can take.
The goal of starting the conversation is to open the door to questions and to vent their feelings. The more they know, the more they will feel like part of the family. Listen carefully to what they have to say and answer the questions as honestly and openly as you can, given their capacity to understand.
- Decide who should tell her.
It is sometimes too difficult for the ill person or the spouse to tell the child, and therefore it might be best handled by a friend or an older sibling or an uncle or aunt. Perhaps after the original talk, other members of the family should also be relatively frank with the child about the illness.
- "Having cancer doesn't mean that Mom is going to die. Many people recover from cancer."
This is a true statement. The American Cancer Society reports that there are 8,000,000 in the United States today, to whom cancer is a memory.
- "Cancer is not contagious."
This is extremely important, since children very often know enough to assume that, because Mom has cancer, they or someone else in the family will catch it.
- "If Mom spends less time with you, it's only because she doesn't feel well."
The child is likely to feel neglected, unless this point is made clear to her time and time again. How often depends on the age and emotional maturity of the child.
- "It's important for you to continue your life as much like it was before. Go to school and continue to play with your friends."
Although the child's life will not be exactly the same as before the diagnosis, for all the obvious reasons, the child should continue to lead as normal a life as possible.
- Sometimes other family members may not be as attentive to you as they were before; that doesn't mean that they don't love you, it only means that Mom needs more attention.
Other members of the family might also talk to the child about the household situation. (See #3 and 5, above.)
- Perhaps family talks about how the entire family is reacting to the illness would be a good idea. If it is, include the children.