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

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How will I know if my child needs extra help?

Deciding if your child needs help can be confusing as parents try to sort out what’s a “normal” response to a new cancer diagnosis and what’s not. This is new to all of you, and it will take some time to figure out what works best for you and your family. But while you are learning for the first time how your children react to cancer, you already have experience with how they deal with other stressful events. Most parents can tell exactly how each of their kids acts when they are upset. Because children, especially young ones, are often unable to identify their feelings and talk about them, they show us by their behavior. Some children will become withdrawn, while others may fight, whine, and complain. The most important thing to look for is how extreme the change is and how long it lasts.

Depression in children can look different than depression in adults. For instance, a common sign of depression in a child is a change in behavior, like suddenly getting poor grades in school or losing friends. Most children whose parents have cancer seem able to cope, but there may be times when it gets to be too much. If a child seems to be having trouble, it may mean a more serious problem than the normal, sad response to cancer. Extra help is needed if a child:

  • Is unable to handle the feelings of sadness
  • Feels sad all the time
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Admits to thinking of suicide or of hurting herself or himself
  • Feels extra irritable
  • Becomes very angry very quickly
  • Has changing grades
  • Withdraws or isolates himself or herself
  • Acts very different than usual
  • Has appetite changes
  • Has low energy
  • Shows less interest in activities
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Cries a lot
  • Has trouble sleeping

When a child shows 1 or 2 of these symptoms, it may help to offer more support. But if the usual methods of handling these problems are not working, or if the problem goes on for more than 1 or 2 weeks, the child may need extra help. (For more serious problems, such as if the child is planning to hurt himself or herself, urgent help is needed.)

It may be useful to talk with the child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or with the social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the parent is being treated. Since these experts know how other children have reacted in situations like this, they may be able to offer a useful way of looking at the problem. They can evaluate the child and make sure that any needed help is given. They can also suggest books, videos, and children’s support groups that may help. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling.

Finally, if one of the child’s parents or main caregivers becomes depressed, the child is more likely to have problems. Sometimes the child’s problem may not look very serious because the child or teen may say very little and hold everything inside. If you or other family members start to feel overwhelmed or distressed, see a mental health professional to get an idea of what kind of help you and your family may need. You can talk with your cancer team to find out where to start. Ask your doctor or nurse, “Who can we talk to if one of us feels overwhelmed or depressed? I am worried about how this will affect the children.” For more information on adult depression, see our document called Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can read it online or call us for a copy.


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