Baylor College of Medicine News

Honest, age-appropriate communication can help children cope with cancer

Parents of children who have been diagnosed with cancer can help them cope by communicating honestly and in an age-appropriate manner about their condition, said experts from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Children who have just been diagnosed with cancer may feel an immediate loss of their sense of security," said Dr. Ernest Frugé, associate professor of pediatrics – hematology and oncology at BCM and director of Psychosocial Programs at the Texas Children's Cancer Center. "Naturally, the child will follow the lead of their parents so it is important for the parents to respond in a manner that shows the child that the situation can be understood and is being actively managed."

Frugé said parents should empathize with their child's emotions but also present the factual information about the cancer and the treatments they will face.

Do not hide information

Parents may attempt to hide or downplay their child's diagnosis in an effort to protect the youngster from experiencing unnecessary anxiety.

"Over time, this strategy will not work," said Frugé. "Even young children can sense that something is wrong by observing subtle changes in their parent."

Dishonesty can cause a child to lose trust in their parents at a time when their love and support is crucial. Frugé said that pediatric oncologists believe it works best to be honest with the child.

The following tips can serve as a guide, Frugé said:

  • Encourage questions
  • Use terms or the real words the child might encounter
  • Differentiate between "sick" and cancer
  • Emphasize that the condition is not contagious and not the child's fault

Resources for parents, children

Pediatric oncologists recognize that this is an extremely difficult time for the parents as well. Child life specialists help child patients and siblings but can also guide parents in how to discuss important information and decisions with their children.

"Child life specialists are highly trained and experienced in working with children of all ages who have cancer," said Frugé. "They can meet with the child and parents to assess their development level, what they know and what they want to know."

Develop a plan

Together, the parents and child life specialists can come up with a plan to ensure open and honest communication.

"Some of these practices for younger children may include medical play that helps the child become more familiar with some of the equipment they will see and prepare for procedures they will experience in the clinic," said Breanna Murray, a child life specialist with the Texas Children's Cancer Center. "For young school age children, a developmentally appropriate explanation of how cancer forms in the body with visual aids may be beneficial."

Teaching children about their diagnosis can help give them a sense of control and ownership over their condition, Murray said. "We encourage our patients to teach other family members and friends about what they have learned."

Provide support

Child life specialists can also help parents continue instilling hope in their child. "No matter the course of the condition, it is important to assure the child that they are not alone," Frugé said.

"Parents may be extremely overwhelmed when they learn their child has been diagnosed with cancer," said Frugé. "But it is critically important that they be the primary source of support for the child as the battle against cancer is waged."