What do you say to a child when it comes to the tricky—and emotional—topic of cancer?

How much does a 5-year-old—or a 15-year-old—need to know about a family member’s diagnosis? Exactly what words, phrases, or terms are best to use?

There’s certainly no “correct” way to approach a subject that carries such uncertainty and fear that many adults don’t know how to handle it themselves, but I’ve arrived at five general guidelines.

1. A child’s age will determine exactly how much information to share. Little ones, 3–5 years old, are able to handle only a fraction of the information that a teenager can, so set aside time to talk with each individual child about a diagnosis, taking into consideration each child’s cognitive ability.

2. Kids need to know the facts. No matter what age, children should be told four things: 1. the name of the cancer; 2. the part of the body affected; 3. how the
cancer will be treated; 4. how their lives will be affected. 

3. The language we use carries a ton of weight. Only using the word “sick” might make children think that they can catch cancer. For this reason, it is important to use the words “disease” and “cancer” along with whatever other words your child can handle.

4. Children need constant support and time for processing. Kids need to know that the cancer is not their fault. They need to know that they will be taken care of during this challenging time and always. Repeat these facts with clarity and frequency. 

5. There’s a wealth of information out there—find it and use it. Books, coloring pages, pamphlets, and websites can help cancer become a familiar topic in your family (understanding that everything needs to be done in moderation). Local support groups, school counselors, and trained social service professionals can provide resources they need. There’s no reason to walk this road alone. 

Find Amy over at teachmama.com and  weteachgroup.com.