Talking to Older Children and Teens

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Although much of the advice for talking to young children also applies with children in middle school and high school (ages 10 to 18), these older children have additional needs. Given how often breast cancer gets talked about in the news and on television, older children are likely to be aware of the seriousness of the disease. In addition to your honesty and reassurance, they may crave more information than younger children do.

  • Be truthful about your diagnosis and course of treatment. Shielding children from the hard facts can harm their sense of trust in you. Even though you do not want to worry them, you do need to let them know what is happening to you.
  • Schedule regular family meetings or other discussion times. Older children can be involved in talks about how family activities and responsibilities will change while you are undergoing treatment. You may need to ask them to handle more household tasks than they normally do. A family meeting gives everyone a chance to have a voice in the changes that are taking place.
  • Anticipate children’s questions about the future. Older children are likely to have heard that people can die of cancer. It is natural for them to be afraid that you could die and to wonder what will happen to them. Make sure your children know that most people with breast cancer do get better and live long, healthy lives. Even if the cancer is advanced, treatments often can keep it under control for some time. Reassure them that, no matter what happens, their needs will be met by you, your spouse or partner, or other caring adults in their lives.
  • Anticipate children’s questions about their own health. Your children may fear that, since you have cancer, they may get it one day, too. This is an especially common fear among teenaged daughters of mothers with breast cancer. Even if breast cancer does not seem to run in your family, breast cancer still happens to 1 in 8 women in the United States during the course of their lifetimes. Therefore, it’s a good idea to bring up the issue at your daughter’s next doctor’s appointment. Talk to the doctor together about some steps your daughter can take now — such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking or using alcohol — to help lower the risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
  • Give children permission to keep up with school and social activities. Even though older children and teens can take on more responsibility at home, they are still children. Let them know that they should continue focusing on their schoolwork, other activities, and time with friends. Children need to maintain that sense of normalcy, but they might only do so if you let them know it’s what you want.
  • Realize that older children may express feelings that seem inappropriate, such as embarrassment or anger. Preteens and teens may express emotions that seem unkind or even completely out of line. They may be embarrassed by changes in your appearance, such as hair loss or weight loss and avoid going out with you or bringing friends home. They may be angry about the ways that your illness limits them and their activities. Although their reactions may upset you, remember that teens are at a time in their lives when they value appearances and their growing sense of independence. If you’re able to show acceptance of your own appearance, you can set a healthy example for your child.
  • Connect them with books and other resources. Talking about cancer can be hard, even in families where communication is strong. You may want to look for books or other publications written especially for young people who have parents with cancer. Your child also may find it helpful to confide in an adult outside the immediate family, such as another relative, close friend, or even a professional counselor. Reach out to relatives and friends and ask them if they can be available.

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