Saturday 19 April 2014

Honesty really is the best policy when it comes to your kids

Whether it's informing them about illness or death, it's always best to tell children the truth

Up front: Sheila Hyde told her children Denis (11) and Linh (8) about her cancer when she was diagnosed in 2011.

It's something we do as parents all the time. Tell lies. It's meant kindly to shield our children from the hurt the truth might bring. But is it the best policy?


It's an intriguing question, particularly when serious issues are at play. What do you tell your child if you are gravely ill with a disease that might take your life? How do you tell your child your marriage is in tatters? Do you tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth or do you lie in an attempt to protect them from distress?

Author Meg Rosoff knows only too well about the lies we tell our children. An award-winning author of stories for young people, she has learned her lesson from not telling her daughter the full truth at a very difficult time in her own life.

Nine years ago Rosoff was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that killed her youngest sister. The family was naturally plunged into panic. In the midst of all this, Rosoff says she and her husband didn't talk much about what was happening to their daughter Gloria, who was aged seven at the time.

"If we had lived in the US, someone would have counselled us but it being England, it was all stiff upper lip," she says.

Rosoff recalls that during her illness, her daughter had started a pony camp that was badly organised and ill supervised and it all became a terrifying experience for her. She says when her daughter talks about that time in their lives, she remembers being terrified even though Rosoff and her husband were trying their best to get it right during the worst of circumstances.

Of course her daughter only saw her mother looking very ill. She had only recently lost her aunt and feared she would now lose her mother too. Over the next 10 years, Gloria became fearful and experienced night terrors and was frightened of being the last person awake in the house.

Looking back, Rosoff says there was that awful moment of realising they hadn't explained to Gloria that she was ill because of the treatment and not the cancer.

In her latest novel, Picture Me Gone, Rosoff tells the story of Mila, a 12-year-old girl on a mission to find her father's best-friend, Matthew, who has gone missing. At its heart, Picture Me Gone, is about the lies we tell our children to protect them and the fundamental difference between how adults and children view the world.

According to Rosoff, the perception that children have a low capacity for truth is a false one. She says without the full facts, often what they fantasise about is much worse than the actual reality.

She recalls an incident where friends of hers lost a family friend to suicide. "He hanged himself on a day he was supposed to pick up the children from school," she says.

Her friends told their children that the man had "just died" without explaining further.

'I think it's tricky to tell someone that a person in their prime dies without giving them a reason. It's terrifying for children to think that adults will just die. I think the book is about how children start out being straightforward but through their relationships with adults they start to twist," she says.

Her own daughter is 16 now and has lost her fear of the dark and can sleep over at friends' houses. Rosoff says while Gloria recognises she's not a good sleeper, it's not the issue it once was. As for cancer, Rosoff says it's omnipresent in their lives but they talk about it now.

Sheila Hyde, a mother of two from Cork, recalls her devastating diagnosis with breast cancer in January 2011 and her fears, not only about the disease itself, but about how to tell her children, then aged five and nine.

"A week or two after finding out, when I had dealt with the shock, I took them in by the fire and sat them down. I wanted to alleviate their fears. I explained about cancer using simple vocabulary telling them there would be a lot of drugs involved that would make me feel ill but would make me feel better," she says.

Sheila explained she would lose her hair and would require hospital treatment. "I gave them the negative first and then left them with the positive. I felt it was important to tell them at an early stage because I was afraid they'd hear it in school and I wanted them to hear it first-hand".

The three things that Sheila was told upon her diagnosis were that her cancer was operable, there was treatment and it hadn't spread. She says she tried to keep life as normal as possible in the house and as a result she believes her children Denis, now aged 11, and Linh, now eight, didn't have any fear.

When she was in the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork for her treatment, Sheila says her children would visit in the evening where she would talk to them and have some chocolate or sweets for them. "They don't see hospital as a place to be afraid of but as a place where people go to get better."

Sheila says she relied heavily on the Irish Cancer Society's booklet on how to talk to children about cancer and says in talking to her children she felt it was important to stress to them that it was not their fault. "I explained that these things happen in life; that we get dealt all sorts of things but that my cancer was not their fault in case in some way they were blaming themselves."

Sheila says throughout all of this hugely difficult time and difficult conversations, she was conscious that her children, who are adopted, had both lost one set of parents already. And she says for her it was very important to be open with them at all times.

More than two and a half years on from her diagnosis, Sheila says her children are doing fine and the family's attempts to keep things as normal as possible have paid off. As for herself, she says she's doing fine too.

"I'm not too bad – I'm still under medical care but I'm minding myself. I do yoga and I do pilates to try and build up my body again. I get as much sleep as I can and I try to avoid stress. I owe it to my family and myself to keep as well as possible".

According to clinical psychologist Dr Sarah O'Doherty, we underestimate how much children think things are their fault when things are going wrong. And she says that when we are explaining difficult issues to our children, we should make sure we reinforce the fact that they are not to blame.

Dr O'Doherty, the resident agony aunt for teen magazine Kiss, says while it's important never to lie to children, they have to be given information in an age-appropriate way.

"You have to know what they need to know and what they can absorb. You have to get a balance between too much and too little information. If you give too little they will fill in the gaps which could be worse than the reality," she says.

Dr O'Doherty also says it's important not to just talk at the child but listen to what they have to say and ask them about their fears.

Naomi Fitzgibbon of the Irish Cancer Society says the most important thing when it comes to talking to children about cancer is to be honest with them. She says that when parents feel confident themselves in terms of having an understanding of what's going on, they should talk to their children fairly quickly as children soon pick up if something is wrong.

"Before you've said anything to them, they will pick up things. With the advancements in treatment people survive their cancer. What you don't want children thinking is that someone is going to die and they could be terrified if they don't know what's happening," says Fitzgibbon.

"You try and explain to the child what's going to happen. If there's going to be surgery, explain how many days it will take you away. Don't exclude them – don't allow Mum or Dad to just disappear off the face of the earth for a week," she says.

Anyone who is concerned about cancer can call the Irish Cancer Society National Helpline Freefone 1800 200 700 to speak to a specialist cancer nurse or visit for more information.

Irish Independent

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