Talking with and listening to your children is absolutely vital throughout the childhood cancer journey.
Your child with cancer and unaffected siblings need to be reassured that you will always answer their questions and tell them the truth.
They need to know they can bring their thoughts and feelings to you, and that you will respect their perspective.
Children need to know the truth, even if the news is not good. If you are not honest, your children will not rust you, leaving them feeling insecure, scared and alone. When you do not share the reality, their imagination will conjure answers – often far worse than the truth.
Always tell your children the truth in simple, age appropriate language they can understand. Even when the truth is very difficult, children are comforted by knowing the whole family is facing it together. Knowing what is happening and feeling involved gives them strength and courage.
The greatest gifts you can give your children is time. Find time with each child at least once a week to focus totally on them. Listen very carefully to what they say.
Try also to hear what is not said. Stressed and pre-verbal children often communicate their feelings through difficult behaviours or by withdrawing from the world. Think about what your child is trying to tell you by these actions, and give more opportunities to talk.
Let your children know it’s ok to share their feelings, by sharing your own with them. This can feel awkward and unnatural if you are not used to talking openly, but your children take their cues from you. You need to take the lead in encouraging them to talk.
Be aware that conversations with young children often don’t run from start to finish in a single exchange. You might share a thought and offer an action, then use the action as a prompt for further conversation with your child about feelings.
For example, you might say “I miss you so much when I’m at the hospital, and that makes me sad. Can you draw a special picture I can keep with me when we’re away?” Then you can follow this up by asking your child why the picture is special to her.
Encourage your unaffected children and their affected sibling to share feelings with one another. Help each of them to understand how their siblings feel, and why they have these feelings.
For example, explain to your affected child how difficult it is for your other children to be left with neighbours, and to see him receive many gifts. Encourage him to share, and help him find ways to show his brothers and sisters he loves them too.
Children feel more secure when they know you want to hear how they feel and you value their thoughts. They have more confidence to share their emotions, rather than bottling them up in an effort to protect you.
This will diffuse potential flash-points of difficult behaviour, keep the household as calm as possible, and thus reduce your own stress.