How to Talk to Younger Children about a Melanoma Diagnosis

A young child holds an adults hand as they walk through the park

As parents our natural instinct is to protect our children from any pain or suffering and this is what we strive to do to the best of our ability. Unfortunately, life throws unwanted and unwelcome events at us including the news of a melanoma diagnosis or recurrence. And we know that this devastating news not only impacts the person with the diagnosis.

Many of us have the joy of living with young children and, try as we might, when bad news hits, it hits us all no matter how we try to pretend or act as though nothing has changed. It has changed but children, as well as adults, can be very resilient, as long as they are assured of three things:

  1. They are loved unconditionally;
  2. No matter what bad things happen, this family will look after each other; and
  3. They are not to blame nor did they bring about this bad thing.

Young children are mostly egocentric – the world revolves around them. When they see Mummy withdrawn or forgetful or Daddy crying or irritable, they often assume it’s because of something they’ve done, especially when no words are given in explanation. And when there is well intentioned silences or hushed tones, children tend to “fill in the gaps” – ‘Mummy’s not talking to me because I didn’t make my bed’. ‘Daddy’s crying because he tripped over my toys’.

There are some simple things you can try. These will not take away this diagnosis, nor your own emotional pain and distress, but they may enable the family to get through this difficult time a little easier.

Have a go at these:

  1. Reassure your child on a daily basis that even though you are sad because “Daddy is not well”, your child is loved by the adults in their life—Daddy, Mummy, Aunty, Uncle, Grandparents.
  2. Make sure your child clearly knows the difference between when it’s their behaviour that has upset you and when it’s the distress and fear of what’s happening with your or your loved one’s health. “Daddy’s sorry he is so quiet and sad today but he’s thinking of Mummy. It’s nothing you have done.  Come on let’s go and toss the ball”.
  3. Finding something that your child can contribute to the family will help them feel as though they’re a trusted member of the team, doing their bit in this crisis. Every child wants to belong. Maybe it’s helping tidy the toys, setting the table, getting the drinks etc.
  4. Try not to overreact to nor ignore those often confronting questions. Children can be refreshingly yet often painfully honest.  They have yet to learn the social graces of hiding their true feelings and thoughts and avoiding pointed or sticky questions such as:
    “When is Mum going to die?”
    “The boys at school say you’ve got cancer”.
  5. As a parent you know conversations can happen anywhere, anytime, as we respond naturally to our children’s cues. You know your child best. They will sense your reassurance and openness, especially when feeling more relaxed such as when having fun together. Try then.
  6. Make some time to read to them or play with them on a regular basis. Letting them ‘show and tell’ what they’ve been doing during the week helps their confidence. Keeping ‘family time’ not only builds love and trust but having fun together can be a wonderful distraction for you all, a time away from the worry.
  7. Contact the school, kindy, family day care, childcare centre or whatever group your child may belong to and explain why your child may be withdrawn, upset or acting out. Once these adults know what’s happening in the child’s life, they will be better placed to provide support and care for your child and to let you know how your child is managing.
  8. There are some great story books and comics available for children about life, death and change. These books may help explain in general what’s happening specifically. We often do not have the “right words” but as long as we have the “right care” our children will understand.
  9. Don’t expect to be the perfect parent under these very trying circumstances. Just as children disappoint, so do adults – that’s part of being human. Be kind to yourself and trust your instincts as a parent:
    – Reassure
    – Love
    – Hug
    – Be Present

We all try to protect those we love, and children especially want to please and be good for their parents (mostly at least). They often don’t want to upset nor worry their parents when there is tension or sadness in the home. Most try to keep their fears, their loneliness, their questions and their own needs to themselves during a crisis. However this doesn’t mean they are not seeing, feeling, noticing and listening. Acknowledge their pain and confusion as you would for anybody else you love.

And remember:

Be kind to yourself and call in your own support network as well as your child’s.

We cannot save our children from bad things happening in life but we can show them that with love and understanding we can get through these challenging times together.

MPA is here to support you through these tough times

This is just the beginning of a conversation about how you can support your children when there is a melanoma diagnosis in the family.  MPA is here to support you through these tough times.  Please call the MPA Support Line 1300 88 44 50 to be put in contact with our professional counsellor who can personalise these strategies to best suit your family situation and circumstances.

Written by Fiona Bennett
MPA’s National Support Manager
April 2017