Talking to children about cancer: Toddlers

When talking to children about cancer, most toddler and infants do not have the ability to understand facts about cancer. However, they are certainly capable of reacting emotionally to family stress.  Many parents ask if children under two should be included when discussing cancer with older siblings. These babies will not be negatively affected by the information you provide to older children, but may react to emotions and distress displayed by you or the other children in your family.  Therefore, be very thoughtful about whether to involve your very young children in family discussions.  There is usually not much benefit in including very young children in a family discussion about cancer.  If your young child is starting to use words and language, you can introduce some very simple words like “daddy sick” to help the toddler find a way to name the differences that he or she perceives.

Infants and toddlers are very sensitive to stresses in the family and will respond in numerous ways. You may see changes in eating and sleeping. These children may also become clingy or fussy or seem to revert back to earlier stages of development. If your toddler has started speaking or behaving independently, you may see a temporary reduction or loss of these behaviors.

Familiarity and security are the most important factors in preventing distress when talking to children under two about cancer.  These children will do best if you can maintain a normal routine and predictable caregivers. When there is cancer in the family, infants and toddlers are often cared for by a range of family members and friends while the well parent assists his or her ill spouse and older children. As much as possible, try to limit the number of caregivers.  Your very young child will do much better if a single relative or neighbor can provide the care.  These people want to help you, so believe it when they tell you that they are happy to take care of your baby!

We understand how difficult it is to maintain a normal environment when you are caring for a loved one with cancer or dealing with cancer yourself. The tasks are never – ending and you probably feel overwhelmed.  However, your littlest children need as much consistency as you can provide in this high stress time.