How to Talk to your child about cancer

What does cancer mean: 

How we talk about cancer to our kids will depend on their age and understanding. For very young children keeping the conversation brief and using simple language will be best. Something like “Mummy (or daddy) has a disease called cancer” Then go on to explain in simple language or by Using pictures, dolls or soft toys if needed as a prop to help in explain where in your body the cancer is and also the impact of the treatment such as hair loss. Young children will likely be more focused on the symptoms and side effects that they can see. Let them know if you will be in hospital or away from home and also how it might impact their usual routine. 

With young children a simple explanation around how the good cells within our bodies become outnumbered by bad cells and this can make us sick and cause a tumour or lump in our body called cancer.  It’s really important to emphasise that cancer is not contagious and that it’s something that happens within the body, and no one has done anything to cause it happening and it’s no one’s fault. 

Older Children

When talking to older children about cancer the starting point would be to ask them what they already know about cancer, and what is their understanding of it. This will allow a natural conversation to flow from where their understanding is at the present time.   Secondary school children will have studied cells and have a basic knowledge of this so you can build upon this in your conversation and explanation of good and bad cells but build upon it to talk about how these can create tumours. 

If you are the person who has cancer and are telling a child then choose an appropriate time to have the conversation with no distractions. This will allow you to take the time to answer any questions the child has and to comfort them. Choose if you would like anyone else to be with during the conversation such as a close friend or relative, who can provide support for you and your child. 

Be mindful of signs that your child has had enough and draw the conversation to a close and return to it later. Don’t be surprised if the conversation is short and your child returns to an activity such as playing. Allow them time to process the information and reassure them they can ask questions any time they need. 

Common questions children may ask:

Firstly it’s important to answer just the  questions that they ask so that you can stay with their individual concerns or worries.

“Will you die”? 

Most parents dread this question. Parents are unsure of how to respond and worried about their children’s reactions. Consider saying something like “ People do sometimes die from cancer, but lots of people don’t. I’m not dying. I am going to see the best doctors , have surgery/take strong medicine to remove the cancer, and I’ll be checked by the doctors “ 

“Can I catch it?”

Reassuring them that cancer is not contagious . 

Why did this happen? Referring back to the part of the conversation around what cancer is and how it develops will be useful to help them understand that it’s no one’s fault.

Who will take care of me if you die? Again reassuring your child that you are not dying but changes in routine may happen to accommodate hospital visits while you are being treated may happen. 

Create a worry box

Using a worry box can a useful tool to allow your child to voice all of their worries and concerns. This can be as simple as you sitting down with your child and allowing them to write down or draw everything they are worrying about and feeling. These drawings and notes will then go into a box and stay there as long as they remain a worry for your child. 

Using a worry box allows your child an avenue to voice their feelings and emotions and not keep them inside. It allows then to name and process their feelings in a safe and contained way. And once the worry is no longer a worry they can remove it from the box. 

What if you choose not to tell your children you have cancer? 

Ideally, talk to your children as soon as possible after diagnosis but if  you choose not to tell your child you have cancer, then be prepared that they may find out another way. They may overhear conversations or be told by a someone else . They might notice you are unwell or see changes to your appearance and routines. It’s useful to plan for such things as children will worry and can become anxious and upset leading to further stress for them.

Be honest about why you choose not to tell them, it may be you didn’t want to worry them or didn’t know how to tell them. If they ask you outright it will be best not to lie to them but if you can’t have the conversation then ask a trusted friend or relative to be involved. 

Talking about cancer is never easy, especially if it is you that has the diagnosis. Allow that you may get upset or angry and ensure you have support for yourself. It’s ok to cry and get upset in front of your child as this will show them that it’s ok to show your emotions and keep the dialogue between the two of going. Check in with them regularly or return to the worry box to ensure their feelings are validated. 

How to Reduce Screen Time for Kids

What is too much screen time?

Too much Screen time can have a detrimental impact upon the mental health of our children, but how much is too much? There is no definitive answer to this question but it usually starts with some recognition that time spent on screens, devises, phones ect is having a negative impact upon the emotional or mental wellbeing of the user (i.e our children).

Parents are becoming increasingly worried about the addictive nature of devises and how these devises and apps are created to keeps us hooked, and as a result there are various community movements online such as “smartphone free childhood” that have local support groups which aim to support and provide advice for parents who are aiming to limit or avoid the use of smartphones for children and encourage a return to a childhood free of such devises.

My approach within my practice when I’m talking to parents about their worries is to use their instincts and try to gain some balance. Balance means ensuring that you are having screen free time to have face to face time. Having a conversation at the dinner table and making a rule that no phones at dinner time is a non negotiable. Having time outside and going for a walk or other exercise without a phone.

I will always encourage my clients to make the conversation around screens inclusive if they have pre teens or teens and this way it allows everyone to have a voice and some input into what screen time boundaries will look like. This gives everyone an opportunity to have their voice heard and concerns raised, before a conversation around how the boundaries will be implemented can happen. Its important to keep the aim of the conversation and goal in mind and to be clear about what this is with your child so that they understand they are not being punished.  The clear goal in this situation is to promote emotional wellbeing and reduce anxiety, whilst at the same time improving “real” relationships and your child’s ability make human face to face connections, away from the curated world of social media.

How can parents evaluate their kids screen time?

A way to evaluate kids screen time is to firstly look at what they are consuming or viewing as not all apps are the same, and monitoring what they watch or how they are engaging with their screen will be the first thing that should happen. Content is just as (if not more) important when evaluating screen time as the time spent on the device. This is where the conversations around concerns and links to emotional wellbeing need to happen between parent and child in a relaxed and non judgmental way. If approached with compassion and enquiry your pre teen or teen will be more likely to open up about their own concerns about their screen time usage and feelings around this. Questions to consider when addressing issues around screens:

How do your children act when the screen is turned off?

How does watching/using the screen make them feel?

What is the general climate like around screen us in your home?

Are screens causing problems or issues in areas of your child’s life or daily routines.

Have screens become all consuming?

We as parents also need to be honest with ourselves about our own screen time habits and then ask yourself how much your screen time is impacting family time and dominating your own leisure time. Children will often tell me that they want to talk to their parents more or do more family activities but its not just their own screen time that is preventing this, its also that of their parents’ screen time that is causing barriers to communication.


Difference between intentional and unintentional screen time

The concept of “screen time” is difficult to quantify that’s because of our increasingly widespread and increasing reliance on screens across every area of our lives. However there is a huge difference between intentional screen time and unintentional screen time. The biggest difference is that the experience of intentional screen time can be shared and is an “Active” engagement . By “Active” in this context we refer to anything that prompts us to think, respond or do. After engaging in intentional screen time we feel re charged and it can foster connection, is very different from the feeling we get after unintentional screen time.

With unintentional screen time we are passive and there is limited if any invitation to engage, to think, or to do. It is an isolated activity and can leave us feeling drained and disconnected.

5 ways to work with kids to reduce screen time

  1. Make your child part of the conversation

Being able to have these open and inclusive conversations with our children around the different between these types of screen activities will in itself enable our children to feel like they have agency and control to choose how they engage with screens and what they are consuming with a link to how it is making them feel. Informed choice and open discussion will also help to strengthen the relationship we as parents with our children.

If we can also be open and honest about our own screen time and then be the change we want to see it will only strengthen our relationship with our children. Aim to explore your child’s thoughts and feelings around their screen usage.

  • Implement boundaries and ground rules together

Your child will feel more secure and safe with clear rules and boundaries around devises. Boundaries harness feelings of security and as much there may be initial protests, being able to place rules and stick to them will relieve feelings of anxiety and force your child to find other ways to entertain themselves

Put rules in place earlier to save pain in the long term. If they are older and you are worried about their screen time then there are a few tips that you could suggest and discuss with them to reduce the time on screens. A good start to setting some ground rules for everyone in the family might be:

No screens at meal times

No screens before bed time

No screens in the bedroom

Delay touching screens as soon as you wake up and take 10 minutes to consider the day ahead and set an intention for the day

  • Encourage and plan family time

This could be all going for a walk or some Family time watching a film or show together that you can all engage in and contribute to. Encourage your child to help out with preparing a family meal or for them to prepare and shop for a meal of their choice.

  • Time outside

Encourage other hobbies not related to screens, ideally ones that will take your child outside of the house.

  • Encourage Active engagement

Encourage them to engage with social media in terms of people or issues that align with their values . This will enable them to be more of an active participant therefore fostering a feeling of agency and control over their usage and not get too sucked into the passive endless scrolling .  

How to reduce screen time: 9 simple tips from family therapists and a neuroscientist (and #4 is an easy win) | GoodtoKnow

How to Let Go of Right and Wrong

Letting Go of Right and Wrong

December 2023

Sometimes the goal or desired outcome of therapy can be hidden and be masquerading as one thing when really its something else. As therapists our job is to enquire and explore the inner world of our clients and sometimes the struggle is not with what’s out there but what is (within us) in here!! I have found that with young people this concept requires deeper work to come to the surface and be accepted into the therapeutic process.

The notion of everything will be fine as long as I’m right is a theme among many of the young people and students that I see in my therapy room.  Therapy promotes taking the time to accept and tolerate feelings which can be confusing, conflicting and contradictory. Then using this new found tolerance to firstly acknowledge and then choose to let go of the all or nothing mindset that holds us back and keeps us stuck, is one of the major parts of the therapeutic process. The black and white thinking which disables their ability to consider nuances is another necessary part of adaptive thinking. Once they are able to consider alternatives to the notion of “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” they are able to apply this flexibility to themselves and approach themselves with compassion and understanding. Letting go of this binary thinking facilitates potential and growth by letting in uncertainty.

Get to know your internal Voice

We are all a product of our past. The things we have seen they way we have been parented and every experience we’ve had up until the point of reading this blog right now has formed the basis of us. Somewhere in our formative years we developed an internal voice. Getting to know yours will you’re your child immensely if they are struggling with theirs. Everyone has an internal voice, the one that likes to add criticism, judgment and evaluation to our thoughts which in turn negatively impacts our feelings. Sometimes this voice is full of praise and encouragement but its usually the more negative voice that seems louder and more dominant. How we “speak” to ourselves is extremely important because it informs how we feel about ourselves, which in turn impacts how we view the world and our place within it as well as how we feel about those around us and ultimately how we connect with others which informs the depth of our relationships with them.

Take time to start to listen and observe to your internal voice over the course of the next week or so. Write down any themes that emerge, what is the tone used from the internal voice and what language is used. Note when you are most critical with yourself and others.