It is natural to want to protect your child from pain and uncertainty. In some families, a general style of open conversation will lead you to talk with your children about your illness just as you would talk about all kinds of changes in the family. There are also many families in which parents don’t want to talk directly with children about an illness, thinking, “What they don’t know can’t hurt them.”
However, experience with children and adults who have lived through a parental illness reveals that in the long run, silence may not be as protective as some parents hope it will be. Almost all children, even the youngest, know that something is happening—and when parents don’t communicate, children feel they are being excluded.
Changes in the everyday schedule, your physical appearance, and the emotional climate in the household are all apparent to children. While it is important to try to maintain the children’s usual routines and preserve family time, children are more likely to feel secure if they understand something about the illness and why things feel different around the house. A child’s worries about unspoken changes can be scarier and more painful than talking about what’s going on and having opportunities to ask questions as they arise. Research on children whose parents have cancer support this idea. Studies show that children given specific information about the illness, and the opportunities to discuss it, may have less anxiety than children who are not so informed.
Reassurance can often be communicated non-verbally, but an illness is so complex and fraught with anxiety that not talking about it only serves to leave children alone with their possible misconceptions and concerns. Even in families and cultures that do not prioritize open discussion between parents and children, children deserve to have some language to use to describe the illness, just the way you use age-appropriate language to describe and teach them about other things in the world.