I will never forget the moment when my 9 year old son said to me, “I will probably get cancer one day”.  He said it in a rather matter-of-fact way, in the same way a child might say- “one day I will be old enough to drive”.  For me, it was like getting punched in the gut again by cancer, I was completely surprised and I felt sad.  To have your children lose a part of their innocence so young is hard to witness.

My protective mama bear of course wanted to reassure him that it won’t happen, but of course we both know that it is possible given the family cancer history.  Nor would it have been helpful to shut down the conversation by dismissing or diminishing this thought.  Instead, I followed these general guidelines for processing it:

  1. I took a deep breath, I had all sorts of conflicting feelings, thoughts and desires, but I knew I needed to just reconnect with my breath and slow down.
  2. Rather than launch into my own thoughts about this topic, I started off with a few questions to have him share more of his thoughts, concerns and feelings.  This allowed me to stay present to his need, instead of dumping my needs on top of him and potentially making him more anxious with information that he didn’t need to hear at that time.
  3. I did my best to not make promises that I could not keep or that I have no control over.  For example, I couldn’t promise him that he would never have cancer.  Yet when he asked to have genetic testing, I did explain that he could have that done once he was an adult if he still wanted it done.
  4. We explored that while we couldn’t necessarily control whether or not he would get cancer, that there were things we could do to support our own health and well being- including physical, emotional and spiritual health, and we identified what he does already to do this.
  5. I took the opportunity to check in about any “leftovers” from the cancer experience that we had just been through as a family, explaining to him that often major life experiences will ask to be processed over and over again, as a way of healing.

It is a beautiful thing to watch how resilient and strong our children can be with support, information and attending to their worries and pain.  Validation is a powerful intervention in our parenting toolbox.  It isn’t always easy to do, especially when our own feelings are triggered in the moment, but the reward of responding rather than reacting always pays off.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com.