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How to talk to children about a grandparent having cancer

How to talk to children about a grandparent having cancer

3 min read

King Charles and his sons will be facing the challenge of how to communicate with his grandchildren about his cancer diagnosis. Here's some tips for how to talk to children about a grandparent's illness
The news of a cancer diagnosis is difficult for all families and when it involves a significant figure like King Charles, it can stir up emotions for us all.   
Like all families, the King and his sons will also be facing the challenge of how to convey this information to his grandchildren with care, honesty and sensitivity.
"The King and his sons face the challenge of talking to his grandchildren about illness with care, honesty and sensitivity"
By being so open with the public about his diagnosis, he has chosen to take the lead and set the tone for family conversations from the start. Sharing his experiences and answering questions will help to provide reassurance directly to the children and can also create a sense of connection and understanding between them all.
Children are very intuitive and will quickly pick up on feelings of anxiety at home, and any conversations held in hushed tones will simply add to the feeling that something is very wrong. The reality may be far less worse than what a young child’s imagination is able to conjure up and so, by being more open and honest, you will be making things easier for them.
King Charles in 2023
Here are my tips for making this process a kinder experience:

Be prepared

Take time to think in advance of what to say and how to convey the information. Be mindful of your children’s emotional capacity—they may not be able to absorb all the details in an initial conversation so giving details in bite-sized chunks further down the line may be a better way forward.

Give age-appropriate information

Avoid complicated medical jargon in the first conversation. Simple metaphors and analogies can be really useful to explain the concept of cancer—you could compare cancer cells to ‘unhealthy’ cells that need special treatment and "magic medicine" to get better for example, or the doctors and nurses to super-heroes.
If you have children of varying ages, consider whether it would be better to tell older ones first and enlist their help in telling and supporting younger siblings.

Answer questions honestly

There’s all good reason to be optimistic and positive about a cancer diagnosis in this day and age so focus on the good support and care that the grandparent will be receiving, but at the same time avoid making too many unrealistic promises—treatment is a step-by-step process.
"Be prepared to answer questions honestly and if you don’t know the answer, simply say"
Be prepared to answer questions honestly and if you don’t know the answer, simply say: "That’s a good question—I’m not sure of the answer to that one, so well done for asking. I’ll find out and let you know".

Personalise the details

Plenty of good people will be looking after and supporting your child’s grandparent—from the local GP to all the doctors and nurses at the hospital. Try to personalise these details by using the names of medical staff as this will feel more reassuring.
Looking up the website of a hospital or medical centre and even locating it on a map will give the sense that the problem is being dealt with professionally and effectively.
Alicia Easton

Get creative

Involve your child in small care-giving activities such as creating get well cards or video messages, baking cakes or picking flowers from the garden. These small activities can help children to feel that they’re contributing to the grandparent’s wellbeing.
This is a valuable life lesson in how to care for others—and the grandparent will appreciate it enormously.

Stick to a regular routine

The more you can maintain a child’s regular routine the safer and happier they feel. As well as sticking to your usual timetable of events, be mindful not to over-compensate by adding in extra treats and sweets, for as well-intentioned as these may be, they will simply alert them to the fact that things are not quite the way they should be.

Monitor your children’s wellbeing

The conversation about a grandparent’s illness may have been received better than you had expected, but it’s often later that emotions begin to surface. Be vigilant in the following few weeks for changes in behaviour such as unexplained angry outbursts, nightmares, bedwetting or eating issues.
"Be vigilant in the following weeks for changes in your child's behaviour"
Introduce more family activities such as healthy walks in fresh air and movie nights with comedy films on the agenda. Speak to a children’s mental health professional if you feel your child is starting to struggle.

Seek support for yourself

Supporting grandchildren through a difficult time can be emotionally taxing and Prince William currently also has the additional task of supporting his children while their mother, the Princess of Wales, recovers from her own health challenges. My advice to him would be to check-in with himself on a regular basis and to not shy away from seeking support for himself.
Stress can present itself in unusual ways and small things such as forgetfulness, clumsiness, a lack of appetite or craving for sweet foods can quickly snowball into much bigger emotional problems. Regular detoxing with activities such as exercise in fresh air or meditation and mindfulness will help.
First aid for your childs mind - Alicia Eaton
Alicia Eaton is a Harley Street based psychotherapist specialising in children’s emotional wellbeing and behaviour change, and author of First Aid for your Child’s Mind
Banner photo: Andrew Yurkiv
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