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

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Are there certain responses I should expect?

Every child is different.

Each child responds in his or her own way to the news of a parent’s cancer diagnosis. The child’s age, personality, relationship to the parent, and the way information is presented are just a few factors that can influence how a child will react. Parents usually know their kids better than anyone else and can expect their children to react in ways that are typical of their personalities. For instance, a child who is very dependent may become even more so during that crisis of a new cancer diagnosis. A child who always imagines the worst may do so now. A child who plays rough with his toys when upset may get even rougher.

Children can’t always tell you, but may show you how they feel.

Children often can’t tell you in words how they feel. Most parents get an idea about what’s going on with their kids by watching how they act. So, a parent who sees their kids fighting with each other more now can probably assume that this is their way of showing they’re upset. Parents can put this into words by saying something like, “I know everybody is more worried right now, but let’s talk about this instead of fighting.”

A child may act less mature when upset.

In general, parents can expect that the stage of a child’s development dictates how well he or she understands what’s going on. Children tend to regress (act younger) when they are under stress. Adults often do the same. A child who has just become toilet trained may start having accidents. A child who has gone off to kindergarten quite happily may become upset when they have to be away from the parent. Kids who have problems paying attention in school might have even more trouble than before.

Children blame themselves.

Children often blame themselves when something goes wrong. This is because children normally see themselves as the center of the universe. This often happens when parents divorce—kids think they must have done something to cause the break-up. The same thing happens with illness. Children wonder if they are to blame. It’s best to address this before the child asks about it, because children usually don’t ask. And self-blame can be harmful to the child.

The child’s level of trust will show up in their behavior.

In most cases, children who are truthfully told what’s happening from the very start will be less anxious than children whose parents try to avoid answering questions. Being honest with your children during this time can help build trust. This doesn’t mean you should tell them everything all at once. Especially for younger children, it’s best to give out the information in small doses, ask them if they have questions, and then answer their questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them you will have to find out, and then get back to them. You can keep them up to date as events progress.

Cancer treatment will bring out new and different responses from children.

Telling children about your cancer diagnosis is different from helping them deal with the daily reality of treatment. As you get ready to move into cancer treatment, you might want to get our information Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Treatment. You can read it on our Web site, or call us for a free copy. It has helpful tips and information about talking with children of different ages about cancer and its treatment.


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