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

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Cancer changes everyone in the family.

The whole family will be affected by your illness, and no one comes through this experience unchanged. Cancer treatment is quite stressful at times but it’s possible to learn creative and helpful ways to deal with the changes and uncertainty that you and your family will go through. You may not have as much time or energy as you did before, but parenting can’t be postponed. Your kids need you a great deal during this time, and you will still need to parent your children through your treatment—even when you may not feel up to it.

You will need to guide your children toward accurate information, hopeful ways of looking at your situation, and healthy ways to cope. There will be times that your kids don’t listen, and that things don’t work out the way you’d hoped. But being a parent means that you will sometimes have to make decisions based on incomplete information, and sometimes you’ll make mistakes. In the words of Wendy Harpham, a mom with cancer who is also a doctor: “There is no one right way to parent. Don’t try to be perfect.”

Does having cancer cause special problems in non-traditional families?

Single or divorced parents

One-parent households can have extra stress when the parent is diagnosed with cancer. Getting to treatment, getting child care, and paying medical bills are added to the already heavy load of cooking meals, cleaning, carpooling, shopping, and meeting the family’s emotional and survival needs. Adding cancer and feeling sick and scared can make things truly overwhelming.

If children have already lived through the break-up of a 2-parent household and lost the security of both parents living together, their grief over a parent’s cancer can be worsened. A parent’s illness may bring up feelings of loss as the child’s security is again threatened. Parents may want to pay close attention if their children seem more insecure during this time. If the other parent has a close relationship with the child, extra visits might be helpful to reassure children that they still have 2 parents who love them. If the divorced couple has problems, they need to be resolved out of sight, away from the stressed child. Otherwise, tensions make it harder for the whole family to get through the current cancer crisis.

Role reversal in one-parent households

Without another adult in the household, sometimes an adult may turn to a child for emotional support. A parent often knows better, but it still happens. With an illness like cancer, the chance of reversing roles with children is very real. The parent needs more help in running the household and more emotional support. Children may start taking on more responsibility than is healthy for their age and stage of development. Single parents must set up a network of friends and relatives who can be called on for emotional and practical support. Usually, being aware that you might rely too much on your children is enough to guard against this happening.

Same-sex couples

In a gay or lesbian household, the needs of children do not change, but the issues can sometimes be more complex. Legal custody or guardianship may become an issue if the legal parent is hospitalized or unavailable. A guardian, either temporary or permanent, needs to be appointed to act on the child’s behalf in the case of a parent’s absence or an emergency. This may be a good time to look into adoption if you haven’t already done so.

Families with adopted children

Adopted children are often faced with questions about themselves as they grow up and try to figure out who they are and maybe even who their biological parents are. A parent’s cancer diagnosis may make adopted children feel more insecure. They may need special assurance that they will be cared for if anything should happen to their adoptive parents. This is especially true if their adoptive parent is single, as it is with any one-parent household.

Unmarried couples with children

Parents have certain legal rights and responsibilities whether they are married or not. Unmarried parents might have extra problems with certain legal and financial arrangements, but children should still feel safe. Sometimes children might feel uncertain or worry if they have gotten wrong information from friends or relatives. They may even fear that a parent will leave if things get difficult. Be sure the children know that the family is working together to get through this, and tell them about any expected changes. And as always, they need to know who will care for them if there is an emergency or a parent is absent. Sharing the back-up plans, as outlined above, will let them know that both parents are thinking of their care and safety.

Prejudice and social isolation

In a single-parent, same-sex, adoptive, or unmarried household, children may already feel they are different from their peers. They may feel the effects of prejudice or bias against homosexuals or mixed-race families. Adding a cancer diagnosis to the mix may make a child feel even more different and more isolated from his or her peers.

Parents in same-sex relationships or cross-racial adoptions may have talked with their children about being in a different type of family. The same advice they give their children about being different can also apply to having a parent with cancer.

If a child seems to be very anxious and the usual ways to comfort them don’t seem to be working, parents should talk with their cancer care team about how to help the child. Talking with your child’s guidance counselor at school might also be helpful.

Access to a good support network can make a difference in how well non-traditional families cope. If a supportive network does not exist, talk to the hospital social worker about other resources. In many gay communities, for example, there are special support programs with therapists who are familiar with the unique needs of gay people. Other special support groups may be available either in your area or online. If you don’t know about these resources, look into what is available in case you need help.


Last Medical Review: 08/07/2012
Last Revised: 08/07/2012