Being diagnosed with breast cancer affects the whole family, including children of all ages. It is common to feel anxious about talking to children or grandchildren about your diagnosis, treatment and how you are feeling. Many women worry that their children will become frightened or upset. It is also common to be unsure about how much to share with your children, how to talk about what is happening in an age-appropriate way, and how to ensure that your children feel able to ask questions and share their feelings.
Being open with your children and giving them information in a way that is easy to understand can help them cope better. Children often sense when something big is happening in the family and can feel distressed or anxious if no one talks to them about it.
Initially, I tried to hide what was happening to me from my daughter. But I realised that she needed to know and when I explained things in small pieces, she coped well. Karen
Children cope differently depending on their age, maturity and understanding of cancer.
Very young children, up to about eight, can believe that their wishes, thoughts and actions cause good and bad things to happen. They may think they have caused you to become sick through something they have said or done. Children this age may communicate their feelings through their behaviour – misbehaving to show they are upset. Others may try to be on their best behaviour, thinking this will help you recover. If you have very young children, you may notice bedwetting, nightmares or an unwillingness to separate from you. Psychologist Jane Turner recommends telling children it’s not their fault, maintaining routine and giving information in stages. It can also help to keep your children physically active through fun and play, as this can help them release energy and anxiety. These strategies can be useful if you have older children too.
Children aged eight to 12 are likely to understand more about how other people are feeling, as well as more about cancer. They may try to be brave. Telling them to “stay strong” is not helpful, as it may lead them to keep their feelings or questions to themselves, when actually they need to be able to talk about them. They may become sad, anxious or angry, or have trouble concentrating at school. Maintaining a routine and helping them get to their usual activities can help. Jane Turner notes the importance of talking with children and letting them talk about even difficult things. She also suggests maintaining rules and consequences, encouraging children to participate in sport and other activities and letting the school know about your situation.
Teenagers are likely to want more information about your diagnosis and treatment. They are likely to understand more complex conversations and think about what is occurring. Teenagers may react in many different ways – becoming angry, anxious or worried. They may want more independence, while still being given support. Jane Turner advises that letting children see you are upset sometimes is often better than pretending everything is okay. Providing teenagers with resources about cancer, helping them stay connected with friends, school and activities, and being available if they want to talk about how they are feeling or ask questions can all help.
BCNA has partnered with Medikidz and CanTeen to provide new resources for children and young people with a parent with cancer. The Medikidz comic helps children aged eight to 12 learn about breast cancer through the adventures of comic book characters. The CanTeen USB key connects children aged 12+ to CanTeen’s “Now What” website for information and support. Both can be ordered through our website www.bcna.org.au.