Should We Talk To Children About the "D Word"?

Written By Aileen Trang
Image of a child and two adults
Photo: BC Gov Photos via flickr Creative Commons

I often work in the Princess Margaret Patient & Family Library, helping patients and their families find cancer information and support services. I quickly realized I didn’t know what to do or say when parents diagnosed with cancer came in looking for information on how to tell their kids about what is happening. So I did some homework: I read books and articles, and cornered my colleagues for more information.

I was surprised to learn that parents should talk to their children about cancer early on. But I was even more surprised that parents should talk about death early on too!

“Oh! So we’re really going there?”

In “When a Parent is Sick: Helping Parents Explain Serious Illness to Children”, author Joan Hamilton explains that children will start to wonder about death early on. If a family avoids talking about death, children may see it as a taboo topic that the family shouldn’t talk about out loud or together. Many specialists say taboo topics often put up barriers to communication when what you really want is open communication within the family. Open communication shows children that they can come to you with questions or if they’re feeling upset and in need of comfort. Talking to them directly means you can make sure the message they’re told is correct and given in a way that you can control. When you talk to children directly, you can see how they are coping and you build stronger bonds with them.

Are you caring for a child who is affected by cancer in the family?

Here are some resources that may help: