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Children: Why To Tell About Your Condition And How To Tell

Guidelines For Telling Children Age 7 Through 13

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  • For children in this age range, consider the pros and cons of using a doll for demonstration. Some children ask for them, while others are embarrassed to be seen with dolls. 
    • If used, the doll can be called a dummy or teaching doll.
    • When postoperative appearance is difficult to describe, visualization on a dummy is recommended. In the alternative, if a specific body part is the subject, consider use of a body outline you draw for an explanation of anatomy and how the body works.
    • If there is to be an operation and it is expected to change your appearance, show the changes to expect. Be straightforward about telling the child that no other part of the body will be involved.
    • If your child is internet savvy, ask one of your health professionals if there is a visual on a website he or she would suggest that would be child friendly.
  • For older children in this age range:
    • Let them set the pace of the talk.
    • Find out what the child knows about your disease. 
      • If what they know or believe is incorrect or doesn't apply to your situation, set the record straight.
      • Be alert to misconceptions about illness in general, and specifically about your condition. One way to raise the question is to ask the child what he thinks may have caused the problem. This gives the child an opportunity to tell fantasies or misunderstandings.
    • Be aware that your children may ignore or avoid topics when they are afraid.
    • Children 11 - 13 are in pre-adolescence. What they see and observe can be integrated to themselves very powerfully. They have more abstract thinking -- and fear. Fear may not be verbalized. 
    • Use simple, concrete information. For example, if you need surgery, you could explain there is a lump in your body that needs to be removed or something needs to be fixed like the plumber fixes the pipes.
    • Warn the child about doing research on the internet. Let the child know that there is a lot of misinformation on the web, as well as very scary information that does not apply to you. Ask the child to come to you with any information he or she learns so you can discuss it and whether it applies to you.
  • Teach the child scientific terminology for body parts and medical procedures after learning his words for them.
    • Teaching for these children should consider their eagerness for new knowledge.
    • Write new words or terms on the body outline. If you desire, the condition may be described, but not named. Characteristically, the group of children under ten does not ask for labels.
    • Before showing any changes in your body to a child in this age group, ask if they want to see the change. Body image is important to children in this age group. Don't show more changes than the child is able to tolerate.
  • Encourage questioning, expression of feelings and active participation during the teaching session. 
    • Take advantage of the older child's greater cognitive skills: the ability to reason; to make generalizations and to understand the concept of time. 
    • Children in this age group can verbalize feelings, comprehend cause and effect, and are likely to have a scientific understanding.
  • Beware of reassuring a child about your condition before learning about his or her notion of what is wrong and how it happened.
    • First recall any experiences the child may have had with illness, hospitalization, or death among other members of the family and the child's friends.
    • Fear of death is normal and common. Don't be surprised by the question: "Are you going to die?"
    • Don't be surprised if the child believes that he or she caused it by being born or by something he or she did.
    • Do not change the subject no matter what the child says.
    • After determining what the child understands, it is important to emphasize the differences and similarities between your problem and those of others. This can be most reassuring.
  • In addition to talking about now, also talk about the future. For example, tell how your diagnosis may affect your family at holidays or upcoming events.
  • It is also helpful to express confidence in your doctor and in a staff that is well trained in the management of your problem and to mention the numbers of people successfully treated. Children can comprehend simple statistical probability.
  • Suggest that the child come to you when he or she hears about your disease from other people or wants more information.
    • Other people are not likely to know your particular situation. Their information can scare children.
    • Research on the internet is likely to turn up worst case scenarios and misinformation.
  • Tell your children you will do your best to answer their questions. Let them know you're there to talk whenever they want.

A non-profit organization called Kidscope (kids-cope), offsite link publishes educational material for children whose parents have cancer. You can download electronic versions for free. (Even people without cancer may be able to apply the ideas expressed in these materials.) A similar organization is Kids Konnected ( offsite link ) which has a good Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section on their website and sponsors support groups for children in California and some other locations in the country.

Cancer Care has trained professional social workers who can speak with a child one-on-one. Cancer Care may also know of local resources. To contact Cancer Care, call 800.813.4673 or go to offsite link

NOTE: Before telling your children, see: General Guidelines For How Much To Tell Children About Your Diagnosis

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