Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Recurrence or Progressive Illness

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How do children react to the thought of a parent’s death?

Each child reacts to this complicated and heartbreaking issue in their own way. The answer depends on many factors, such as the child’s personality, his or her relationship to the sick parent, the age of the child, his or her maturity, and the child’s developmental needs—along with how close or distant the death is. Some children refuse to believe that their parent is seriously ill and demonstrate this in their behavior. For instance, they may refuse to accept that Dad can’t play ball with them, become whiny and irritable, and act out their sadness and anger by refusing to go along with the family rules.

Sometimes children will withdraw and isolate themselves from others in the family or their friends. They may refuse to listen to an explanation of what’s going on or pretend that nothing is wrong. Children may regress, meaning that they do things the way they did when they were younger. For example, they may have trouble leaving the parent to go to school, have temper tantrums, or change toileting habits that had been under control. These changes in behavior can be very upsetting for a parent. And these things happen when parents have less time and energy than usual to deal with them. Kids often “act out” because they aren’t yet able to recognize and name their emotions. They don’t have the words to “talk out” their distress.

Anger is probably the most common reaction to the stress of a serious illness. Anger is also one of the harder issues to deal with directly. Many of us have been told, in one way or another, that it’s not OK to be angry. People can spend a lot of energy hiding such feelings. One of the reasons for this may be that to some people, expressing anger may mean acting enraged and threatening, which can be very scary and destructive to those you love. Children and other loved ones do not usually feel safe when a parent is out of control.

But simply feeling angry doesn’t mean that you are less of a person or that you are not coping well. Anger is a valid response to the unfairness of cancer and needs to be recognized as such. If you, as the patient or family member, can claim your right to feel cheated because of the impact cancer has had on you and your family, it will be easier for your children to express these normal feelings, too. Trying to hide such feelings takes up energy that could best be used elsewhere.

Teens may find anger a special problem. Remember that teenagers are already usually somewhat rebellious and don’t like feeling different. Feeling angry about the illness is another layer added to their insecurities and anxieties. If they won’t talk to their parents, they might open up to other adults such as teachers, church leaders, or coaches. There are also some great Web resources and online support groups that may appeal to this age group (see “To learn more”).

Is it all right if I talk about being angry?

You may be quite angry about having cancer again and feel you should hide this anger from your kids. But it’s better to talk about your anger at the cancer. Be very sure not to direct your anger at the children.

You will want to encourage them to express their anger, too. Show them that being angry doesn’t mean that you will fall apart, or that your family will suffer more. Show them that calmly talking about these feelings can even make you closer as a family. Explain to your children that you know that some of their angry feelings are not directed at you personally, even though it may sometimes seem like that. Tell them that you understand the cancer is the real culprit and you share their feelings. Make this a bonding experience and find ways to release the anger together.

Help your children express their feelings.

Children, depending on their age and personality, often try to protect their parents from their true feelings. We all do this to one degree or another with people we love. Asking your children if they are angry and assuring them that feeling this is way is normal could open the door to a helpful and healing discussion. Underneath the anger, there is often a deep sadness which needs to be recognized and shared in order to move on. While these feelings can be painful to express and to listen to, getting them out into the open can take away some of their power and help people feel closer.

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