Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With a Parent`s Terminal Illness

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How should your child’s school be included?

It’s important to speak to your child’s teacher or guidance counselor about the illness and possible death of the parent. The school staff can then watch your child and let you know if they notice any problems. If a child is troubled, it will often be seen in the school setting, and a teacher who is not aware of what’s going on in the child’s life is not prepared to help them to cope with it. The school can be a major help because the staff are usually aware of how a family crisis affects a child and know how to help them deal with it. A teacher or guidance counselor might spend some extra time with the child, especially since life at home may be so chaotic. If a child starts having trouble with grades or behavior, the teacher needs to know the reason so that the problems are understood and addressed in context.

Sometimes older children don’t want anyone outside of the family to know what’s going on. They worry about what their peers will think, so you may be the main person your child has to talk to. In general, children don’t like being different from their friends, and those feelings need to be heard. It’s important for you to try to get your child to talk about what they are feeling. Try to help your kids see that the parent’s illness is no one’s fault and that he or she is the same person as before the illness.

If your child is OK with it, the teacher may be able to help the child talk about the illness to classmates and answer other children’s questions. Maybe the teacher can help your child’s peers figure out what they might do to help their classmate get through this difficult time. It’s almost impossible to keep a serious illness a secret, and the child needs to know that this is not necessary and that people usually want to help. Also, when death occurs, a child can get a lot of comfort and support from his or her classmates, maybe through attendance at the parent’s memorial or funeral, condolence cards, or recorded messages of concern. In this way, the child gets some of the same kind of support that the adults in the family get from their friends.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012