Help Children Learn to Cope With Cancer Risks Through Open Conversations

Talking to children about potential genetic cancer risk is difficult but important, according to a presentation at the 12th Annual Joining Forces Against Hereditary Cancer Conference.

Karen Hurley, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, presented more on the topic, highlighting the best practices and benefits of being honest with children.

“We are all subject to random events, we are all subject to hard times and we are all subject to mortality whether or not we have a particular risk mutation,” she said during the presentation. “Given those facts, the legacy you can give to your children are these life lessons about what to do when life gets tough, what to do when things are uncertain, when there are things that are out of your control, when you really have to make difficult decisions that no one should make when you are dealing with really strong or painful feelings. These are things you have to offer your child that go far beyond the effects of one particular mutation that will enable them to take on any challenge in life that they may face.”

The importance of talking to children

While an immediate response for most parents will be to protect their children by not telling them about a diagnosis, Hurley said during difficult times it’s more constructive to focus on the element of trust so that families have a chance to connect. create and grow.

“Sometimes parents will shield children from information, but then what happens is that if the information isn’t shared, it becomes isolation rather than a chance to bring the family together. Especially parents who say things like, “Let her have her college days” or “Just let him get through his senior year,” and then the child finds out later that there was information that could have been shared. This can lead to feelings of betrayal or feelings of mistrust. “Well, if you didn’t tell me, what else aren’t you telling me?” So then it requires some restorative or restorative work. It also deprives them – especially in the adult children – of the opportunity to grow by not telling them information because you are afraid it will hurt them in some way. Then they don’t have a chance to take that opportunity, to dig and find coping skills that they may not have known they had.”

Most children, Hurley noted, despite their age, will also pick up on the environmental changes that come with a cancer diagnosis, especially as they see parents visit the doctor more often or if someone needs surgery. But this can be used as an advantage when discussing hereditary cancer risks. “Another thing is — because kids can at least pick things up, especially the older ones — to ask what they already know or what they’ve noticed, and then build on that if they have some assumptions or misinformation. , you have to bring that up and correct it,” she explained, noting that it’s important to follow the child’s lead about how much or little information they want to know at the time.

Navigate the conversation

Hurley highlighted two important aspects to consider when preparing to talk to a child about cancer risk. The first is practical about which words to use and how much information to give. She added: “Some general principles are to think about both the child’s numerical age and their maturity level. What can they handle? What is the minimum amount of information they need to get through the next period, provided that you can develop that information further as they get older.”

The second aspect is navigating your emotional status before engaging in the conversation.

“When you start a conversation about risk, you want to take care of your feelings first so that you are fully available to focus on the child’s feelings and needs in that conversation. The example of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others is a well-known example of taking care of yourself first,” she said. “If we take this as a metaphor, what does that actually translate into? It means that you must first process your own feelings about your genetic risk, whether that be guilt, sadness, fear, anger (or) helplessness, all of the above or any other feelings I haven’t mentioned.

Hurley recommended having at least one adult, be it a partner, friend or family member, as a support system who can help you or hold a hand.

She concluded: “Putting your own mask first is a very important task as a parent, easy to say, harder to do. Go ahead and take your time. It’s worth spending a little extra prep time, maybe even seek some guidance from a doctor, social worker, psychologist, or trusted professional Trust your own knowledge of your child and take that guilt you feel about wanting to protect your child by thinking about what you want to teach your child about dealing with challenges in life.

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