Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis

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How can I reassure my child that everything will be fine?

Parents probably cannot offer the kind of overall reassurance they would like to when they first learn they have cancer. This is because no one really knows at that point how treatment will go and whether everything really will be OK. And you don’t want to say this if it isn’t true, because you can lose the child’s trust. But there are things that parents can do to help their kids cope.

Parents can reassure children that no matter what, they will always be cared for. If the parent is feeling sick, they will arrange for someone else to fill in. The most important issue for children of any age is their own sense of security and safety. Children depend on their parents for their basic physical and emotional needs. A parent’s cancer can make families feel that their lives are totally out of control.

During this time it’s important to realize that the entire family is likely to feel anxious and unsettled. The person with cancer will make trips to the clinic or hospital, time off will be taken from work, daily household life will change, and family members will feel — and show — all kinds of emotions. In spite of all this, parents should try to keep as much of their children’s lives the same as possible. This may sound like a tall order, but it’s usually possible to reorganize family routines, at least for a short time.

When you talk about your diagnosis and treatment, it’s a good idea to prepare children for the fact that certain changes will need to be made in the family routine. Parents will need to call on others to fill in for them during periods of active treatment. Maybe a relative will be moving in for a while to help out if a parent needs to be in the hospital. Maybe the sick parent has friends who have offered to take turns preparing meals for the family. A relative or friend may volunteer to pick a child up from school or take the child to sports practice or music lessons. Take people up on their offers to help out and try to find the support you and your kids will need at this time. Loved ones, friends, neighbors, and even the parents of your children’s friends can be a great help in keeping daily life as normal as it can be.

When these changes in family routines are explained to children, they offer a powerful message that Mom or Dad is still in charge and the child’s needs have not been forgotten. Life will go on as normally as possible given the crisis the family is facing. The children will not be left on their own. Parents should confirm that no one is happy that life seems turned upside down right now, but it won’t last forever. In the meantime, tell children over and over again you love them and that you are working to be sure they are cared for.

Sometimes kids react strongly to changes in routine. Parents may feel frustrated and even angry as they try to meet everyone’s needs. Keep in mind that it’s no one’s fault when a parent gets cancer and nothing can be done change this. But people do have choices about how to handle the situation. Find something in the situation that the child has a choice about, for example whom they would like to meet them at the school bus, or what they’d like to take with them when they go to a neighbor’s after school.

Don’t spend endless time discussing issues—sometimes that’s just the way things have to be for now. Children are not expected to like it when their routines are disrupted—adults don’t like it either. Parents can admit this to their children, along with the fact that they have a right to feel angry and upset right now. Although parents can’t fix the situation, they should be concerned about how their kids are feeling.

Children’s needs vary depending on the age of the child. Young children have basic survival needs and are more dependent on parents to feel secure and safe. Teens present special challenges because they tend to test their need for independence. But it makes sense to ask them to be there to fill in more for an absent or ill parent. Sometimes there may be a fine line between asking for help from a teenager and giving them too much responsibility. Parents may need to recognize their teenager’s normal desire for independence. It can help to assure them that you know they need their own time and space in spite of the fact that a parent is ill. It may also help to set up family meetings in which parents and children can review how things are going in the family and decide what should be different or stay the same.

Some families may find it hard to ask for help. The family may not be living together, or they may have had tension or conflicts. We know from experience that people who try to manage cancer alone will have a harder time. Try to remember that usually people really do want to help, and if you let them, they feel useful and needed. But you will need to tell them exactly what you and your family need from them. If no one is available to help, patients or their loved ones should ask to talk with the hospital social worker or the nurse in the doctor’s office about any community agencies that can help.


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