Tips for Talking to Your Children About Genetic Test Results

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There are many decisions parents face after testing for genetic cancer risk, including whether to tell their children and how to approach the conversation.

If you decide to talk to your children about the test results, allow yourself some time to process the information; you want to be calm and clear when you talk with them. Remember that you know your children best and there are no set rules for talking to kids about genetic tests.

You also may want to talk with your spouse and decide whether you would like to speak with the children together or individually. It is good to be aware that sometimes spontaneous discussion opportunities arise – such as driving a child to school or practice – when a child asks a question that can disrupt parents’ plans for informing them, but can feel like a natural way for the topic to come up and be talked about.

Andrea Patenaude, PhD

Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program Psychologist Andrea Patenaude, PhD

Why should I tell my children about the genetic test results?

  • Children pick up on conversations they overhear. By talking to them directly, it ensures they hear about it first, and fully, from you, and not from a snippet of conversation.
  • You are able to start the conversation about hereditary cancer in an honest and open way.
  • You can emphasize positive aspects of the test results; for example, test results provide information so we can take early steps to prevent or treat cancer.
  • It helps children understand what’s going on at home and plans you may be making.
  • It is an opportunity for you to find out if your children are thinking about cancer and allows you to answer any questions they may have.

How should I tell my children about the genetic test results?

  • Consider using simple language to describe the test so your children can understand the details.
  • Emphasize that the result doesn’t mean you have cancer or will necessarily get cancer in the future. Similarly, make it clear that the result doesn’t mean they will have cancer or will necessarily get cancer in the future.
  • If you have had cancer, this may be a way to explain why you, or other family members developed cancer
  • Ask your children if they have any questions and let them know that you are always available to talk if they have questions later on. You can ask them to repeat what you said to reveal any misconceptions they have.

When should I tell my children about the genetic test results?

  • Roughly half of parents tell their minor children the result of their genetic testing within a month of receiving the test results, but do not feel pressure to tell your children if you do not think you or they are ready.
  • If you are not planning on talking to your children for a while, it might be a good idea to plan a specific time to talk to your child later, for example, when they reach a particular age or after a certain event, such as graduation.

When you are considering how to talk to your children about genetic test results, remember to take into account their age differences, maturity levels, emotions and how much each child knows about or wants to know about cancer.

If you have more questions about how to talk with your children about genetic testing, make an appointment with Dana-Farber’s Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program psychologist, Andrea Patenaude, PhD, at 617-632-5577.

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