How to talk to parents

Many people find talking to a person with cancer very difficult, often people feel lost for words. Be yourself and try not to worry too much about doing the right thing.

Information about the parent’s cancer could be extremely useful for managing expectations and providing support.

Listen to the parent and let them lead the conversation

If the conversation stops, it’s not necessary to fill in the gaps. A shared silence can be just as important as talking.

Avoid giving unsolicited advice

Avoid giving unsolicited advice or telling the parent you know exactly how they feel, even if you have been in a similar situation. It is best to use phrases like, “That sounds really difficult” or “You’re going through so much. How can I help?”

Respect Privacy

Respect the parent’s privacy as well as that of the child and the family as a whole. Some adults do not want to share the information about their diagnosis to avoid potential gossiping or probing questions, and to reduce the chance of their child being upset.

However, try to encourage them to tell you what cancer type they have and an idea of prognosis, or treatment. This information can be extremely useful for managing expectations and if the child requires extra support services.

Also encourage family communication. Encourage parents to talk to their children about the changes the family face (this can be facilitated by appropriate resources).

Discussions to have with the parent

A discussion with the parent enables the school to put support systems in place for the child. This will lessen the parent’s stress or anxiety concerning their child’s time at school.

These discussions may be had with another adult carer in the family and not with the sick parent.

  • Which children, teachers or staff member does your child feel comfortable talking to at school if they feel worried or frightened?
  • What are the names and roles of the people looking after your child (eg grandparents, aunts, friends)?
  • Decide on one or two people (“link people”) who can liaise with the parent throughout their treatment.
  • Find an easy way to communicate and problem solve with the parent for when problems arise. Confirm a phone number and email address that will enable direct contact between the link person and the parent.
  • Confirm who the point of contact should be at the school in the event of an appointment running over e.g. link person, child’s teacher.
  • Names and contact details of any adults who can collect the child from school if the parent cannot.
  • Discuss with the child exactly what they know about the cancer diagnosis.
  • Discuss the words used within the family in relation to the cancer diagnosis so that the same language can continue to be used, thus avoiding the use of words the child might not know.
  • Establish if the child is a carer themselves, and, if so, what level of care giving they are currently responsible for.
  • Are there any changes in financial circumstances (due to the parent not working) and therefore can support for school dinners/extra curricular activities/school trips be provided?

Additional discussion points

  • Would they like to have reminders set for future events or deadlines because the receiving and returning of information may have become less efficient than usual.
  • Can a process be put into place to ensure that the child has the right equipment for school each day?
  • How flexible can pick up and drop off be? Delivering or collecting the child at school may cause the parent anxiety – is it possible to deliver or collect from a different place, perhaps at an earlier time?
  • The parent may not be able to walk as far as they could previously – can they park nearer to the school?
  • Is it possible for the child to do their homework whilst at school, perhaps with someone available to help them?
  • Offering priority access to after school clubs if the family cannot get out and do things
  • At school events, can the school offer the parent preferred seating?
  • If there are any fundraising activities for cancer charities, or assembly plans where cancer is going to be discussed, make sure the parent is informed well in advance so that they can speak to their child (if the child finds it difficult to have cancer discussed in school).
  • A parent receiving chemotherapy may have their immunity lowered, therefore they are more likely to get infections, so inform them if any illness that their child may have been in contact with (vomiting, diarrhoea, flu, chicken pox, shingles) has been present at school.
  • Information may flow at differing rates, depending on what is happening either in the parent’s