Handling Insensitive Comments About Your Child’s Cancer Diagnosis

Here is another guest post by Sean Akers, PsyD, a licensed clinical pediatric psychologist here at Children’s.

Most people who comment on a child’s cancer diagnosis don’t mean to say hurtful things. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t accidentally make very insensitive comments.

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Here are 5 tips for dealing with insensitive comments about your child’s cancer diagnosis.

1. Surround Yourself With Support.

The first thing I always encourage parents to do is surround themselves with as many supportive people as possible.

When you’re dealing with a serious situation like a child’s cancer diagnosis, having people around who are as loving, supporting, and validating as possible is extremely helpful.

Why Validation Matters

People may not realize that last part—validation—is important.

When someone says something like, “Your son doesn’t look very sick,” or, “I’m sure he’ll be fine since they found the cancer at an early stage,” chances are she’s trying to come across as optimistic.

But to a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer, those words seem less positive and more invalidating. Instead of coming across as, “I’m rooting for you,” it sounds more like, “Why are you freaking out unnecessarily?”

2. Learn To Let It Go.

I think that—in some cases—there is also a lot of merit in working on just letting insensitive comments go.

Sometimes, you may be tempted to confront the person who has said something to you. But responding in that way takes a lot of energy that could be used for more positive purposes, such as focusing on your child.

So, there are times when it’s best to just decide to not let the words get to you.

3. Ask For Clarification.

If letting it go isn’t something that you feel would be helpful, it’s okay to say, “Can you please explain what you mean by that?”

Some seemingly insensitive comments come from acquaintances, but even close friends may occasionally say things that make you wonder why they would say that.

By letting them know you’re not sure you understand, you’re giving them the opportunity to clarify what they mean. And sometimes, they’re able to word it better—in a way that makes more sense and is not as hurtful.

4. Explain Your Emotions.

If what a person says still sounds insensitive after clarification, it’s okay to tell them their words still feel hurtful. Don’t be afraid to stand by your feelings. Tell them, “I know that you’re trying to be helpful, but what my child is going through is still very scary.”

Just be honest and straightforward about what you’re experiencing.

But keep in mind that how much you share is completely up to you. You may choose not to say anything more, or you may say, “I still have to sort through my feelings about all of this.”

5. Do What Works For You.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle insensitive comments.

How we interpret comments and how we react to them is very individualized.

Some people react with complete seriousness. Others try to cope with humor. It’s important to figure out what works best for you.

But—regardless of personality and temperament—I always tell parents to refer back to my first point: Surround yourself with loving, supportive people. Those are the people who will be the best at helping you cope.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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