understanding cancer

Understanding Cancer: What Do Kids Understand At Different Ages? (Part 1)

Understanding cancer can be difficult for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for kids. So, explaining your child’s cancer to her can be very challenging.

I often see parents struggle with this. They aren’t sure what their child will understand, what will scare her, etc.

Since every child is unique, there isn’t one correct way to explain cancer. However, I like to give parents a jumping-off point.

Here is a look at children’s beliefs, fears, and levels of understanding at different ages.

Infant/Toddler

I Don’t Understand.

Infants and toddlers don’t have the vocabulary or comprehension skills that older kids have. However, it’s still important to start using correct terms, so that they can build upon them.

Talking to very young kids encourages speech and communication. You might be used to saying things like, “We’re going to give you a bath,” or, “We’re going to feed you.”

Don’t be afraid to do the same thing when your kid is getting cancer treatment. Say, “We’re giving you medicine,” or, “We’re washing your skin to do your port.”

You’re Going To Leave Me—And It’s Going To Hurt.

Infants and toddlers sometimes fear that they are going to be abandoned at the hospital, or that the medical staff is trying to take them away. These fears can be even worse if kids experience pain—like pokes—when you’re not there.

It’s very important not to ignore these fears. Reassure your child that the pain will go away, and that you will always be there for him. That way, he might be able to avoid associating the hospital with being taken away, or associating being taken away with pain.

Early Childhood (3 to 7 years)

I Caused Cancer.

This age group loves to fantasize and imagine. And while that’s great for playtime, it’s not always so great when they start coming up with reasons why they got cancer. They might think things like, “I didn’t pick up my toys, and the next day I got sick. That’s why I got sick.”

Instead of letting your child’s imagination run wild, give her honest explanations. Let her know that she didn’t get cancer because she did something wrong. Even if she hasn’t come to you about it, still have this conversation. She might be wondering how she got cancer but not asking.

Cancer Is A Germ.

When they reach preschool and early school age, kids start to learn about germs. So, they might think they “caught” cancer as they would a cold. Explain to your child that he did not catch cancer, and he cannot give it to anyone else.

understanding cancer

This is a good opportunity to start explaining the immune system, and that he might not be able to fight sickness as well as some of his friends.

That understanding can make him feel better if his friends aren’t allowed to visit. He might realize that you’re just protecting him, not that you’re keeping friends away because you think he will make them sick.

I Know What Happens Here.

Kids start to develop associations when they are infants and toddlers, but this is the age where the associations are very strong. When their parents pull up to the hospital, they might think, “I know this place. It’s where something scary or painful happens.”

As much as you might want to shield your child, be honest with her. Yes, there could be some pain, but it won’t last forever. Honesty can build trust, which can make going to the hospital easier.

There is something good about hospital associations, though. At this age, kids start to understand that medicine and treatments will help them get better. Keep reminding your child of this if she’s feeling down about getting treatment.

In Part 2, learn how older kids and teenagers understand cancer.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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