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Talking to Children When a Sibling Has Cancer (an Age-by-Age Guide)

Hearing your child has cancer is one of the worst things a parent can hear, but it can also be difficult for siblings as well. Cancer has a ripple effect – impacting not just the person battling cancer but their loved ones as well.

If your child has recently been diagnosed with cancer, you may wonder just how much or how little you should share with your child’s siblings. Are they old enough to understand? Can they handle the news? Will you unnecessarily burden them? It can be scary to share that a loved one has cancer—but especially with your children.

You may be surprised to learn that discussing your child’s diagnosis with siblings as soon as possible may be beneficial.

“Children of all ages will realize pretty quickly that something is wrong,” said Tracey Hawkins, a certified child life specialist at Banner Children's. “They may even overhear someone else talking about it. Sharing this information may allow them to feel valued and help relieve fears or questions they have as well.”

Hawkins shared with us some ways parents can guide conversations with their children when a sibling is diagnosed with cancer.

Talking to your child about a sibling’s cancer diagnosis

Come up with a plan. Decide how much information you want to share, when is the best time to discuss it, how you’ll deliver the information (i.e., together as a family, individually) and who will lead the discussion (i.e., mom, dad or the child diagnosed with cancer).

Set the tone of the conversation. Prepare your mood, demeanor and the purpose of talking with siblings. Children will feed off your behavior. It’s okay to display some emotion and vulnerability with your children. This can actually show them that it’s okay for them to do the same and to feel safe enough to express and share feelings.

Be open and honest (in an age-appropriate way). Everything doesn’t have to be discussed all at once. Start with the basics and go from there—follow your children’s lead. The important thing is letting them know they are part of the discussions, and you’re open to their questions and will do your best to answer them. And if you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out the answer for us both.”

Additional tips when approaching the conversation by age:

  • Preschool: You don’t need to provide a lot of detail. Think concretely, use pretend play/doll/stuffed animals to help explain. Make it clear cancer isn’t something that can be caught like a cold. Use simple, direct words and keep conversations short. You can come back and continue to discuss at another time.
  • School-aged: Use pretend play and keep discussions brief (follow your children’s cues). You can provide more detail, but use simple and direct words, such as the name of the cancer. Remind them that cancer isn’t something that can be caught like a cold.
  • Teens and young adults: Be open and honest. Share as much information as they seem to want to know and are comfortable with hearing. Be prepared for an emotional response during conversations or at a later time—after they’ve had time to process. Encourage an outlet for them to talk about or express how they’re feeling whether that is journaling, art, writing, music or sports.

Give them time to process. Discussions can be fluid and change based on how information is being received by your children (i.e., if a sibling shuts down or is engaged and asks clarifying questions to better understand). It may take several conversations to help your children feel secure and part of the healing process. Remind them that you are a safe place to come to when they need to talk, ask questions and express feelings.

Ask professionals for help. If you need help before talking with your children, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s cancer care team, local community organizations or a licensed behavioral health specialist. As well, if your child is struggling with a sibling’s diagnosis, your child’s cancer care team is there to help.

While the word “cancer” is scary, your conversations don’t have to be. Remember that it may take more than one conversation to help your children process. The important thing is that your children feel included in discussions and feel safe to ask questions.

Additional articles:

Children's Health Behavioral Health Childhood Cancer