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

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What if my child starts acting differently after I start treatment?

Watch your child’s behavior. Acting out, worrying constantly, fighting, sleeping issues, or not being able to focus, may be signs that they are not coping well with the changes taking place. Parents usually know how their children normally express distress. Typical behaviors that are much worse may mean your child is troubled, and could point to a need for professional help.

Sometimes when children have trouble talking about how they feel, a cancer care professional or child care specialist may be able to help them open up about their fears or sadness. Since these experts know how other children have reacted to illness in the family, they may be able to offer a useful way of looking at the problem.

Although most children whose parents have cancer are able to cope, there are times when it gets to be too much. If a child seems to be having trouble, it may mean a more serious problem than a normal, sad response to cancer. Extra help is needed if a child:

  • Displays or talks about feeling angry, sad, or upset all the time
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Admits to thinking of suicide or of hurting himself or herself
  • Changes from one mood to another 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
  • Daydreams or seems distracted a lot

When a child shows 1 or 2 of these symptoms, it may help to offer more support. But if the usual ways of handling these problems aren’t working, or if the problem lasts for more than a couple of weeks, the child may need extra help. (For more serious problems, such as if the child is planning to hurt himself or herself, help is needed right away.)

It may help to talk to the child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or with the social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the parent was treated. These experts know how children tend to react to illness in the family, and they may be able to offer ways to help with the problem. They can evaluate the child and make sure that any needed help is given. They may also be able to suggest books, videos, and/or children’s support groups that may help. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling. (For more on mental health professionals in cancer care, please call us for a copy of Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Understanding Psychosocial Support Services. Or you can read it on our website at www.cancer.org.)

Finally, if one of the child’s parents or main caregivers becomes depressed, the child is more likely to have problems, too. Sometimes the child’s problems might not look very severe; the child or teen may say very little and hold everything inside. If you or your partner starts to feel overwhelmed or distressed, see a mental health professional to get an idea 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 our children.” For more information on adult depression, see Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can read it online or call us for a free copy.

Can I expect my children’s lives to go on as before?

As much as you hope it would be possible for life to continue as before, life changes after a cancer diagnosis. No matter how you may feel about it, having cancer is a major crisis. But be aware that you and your family will find a “new normal” over time. Many people say that having cancer resulted in some good changes for their family. People do learn to live, and even thrive, with cancer. The challenge is learning how to cope with changes and stress in the ways that work best for your family.

One of the best ways to work toward keeping things normal is to sit down and talk with each other about how everyone’s doing. Together, plan how to manage the changes in family routines. Setting up a regular time for family meetings can be a good idea. Let your children call meetings when they need to. Family meetings are helpful if they include topics other than cancer, too. Use these meetings as a way to check on everyone’s feelings. Do some chores need to be reassigned because of school demands? Is there a special event coming up that the family should plan for? Who needs a pat on the back for making an extra effort? What new information do your children need about the treatment plan?

Try to have back-up plans for any changes in family routines that would be needed to deal with unexpected events. Making lists of tasks to be done and assigning each of them to a family member will help life run more smoothly. Regular family meetings can also be used to help solve problems before they become huge and can help relieve tension by airing small concerns. Concrete problem-solving makes everyone feel more in control.

Even if you have family meetings, it’s still important to check in with each child on a regular basis. Sometimes there will be issues or feelings that they might not want to bring up in front of others.


Last Medical Review: 01/29/2015
Last Revised: 04/27/2015