Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer: Understanding Psychosocial Support Services

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When is family counseling a better option?

Some experts think that family counseling is the best way to address all the issues that come with cancer in the family. Families are unique in many ways. Each family has its own differences in life experiences, personalities, feelings, the quality of relationships, beliefs, stage of development, and culture. For instance, if a family believes that their problems should not be shared with outsiders, they might have a lot of trouble taking part in counseling. If a family believes that children should not have to deal with any of the painful realities of life, they will have a hard time talking about a parent’s diagnosis with their children. But secrets can harm any family, and having cancer is an almost impossible secret to keep.

Children are keen observers of their parents’ emotional states. They often recognize that there’s a serious problem, and many times what a child imagines can be much worse than the truth. The child may realize a parent is ill, but without information, believe the parent is going to die. Some children may even feel sure, against all logical reason, that they caused their parent’s illness.

One of the ways to decide on family counseling is to look at what’s going on in your family. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Can I talk to my spouse or partner about how I feel?
  • Is my spouse or partner able to listen to what I am saying or does it seem to be too painful for them? For example, do they change the subject when I bring up a serious issue?
  • Does it help to talk to my spouse or partner when things are going badly?
  • Do we often end up in a fight about how we expect each other to react?
  • Do my children seem worried a lot, or are they less involved with friends or school activities?
  • Is it harder to get my children to listen? Do they tell me how they feel?
  • Are my children misbehaving more than usual?
  • Do my children seem sad or lonely?
  • Do we seem unable to enjoy being together as a family?
  • Are the children fighting among themselves more often?
  • Are their grades much lower than usual?
  • Am I getting more complaints from my child’s school?
  • Are my children suddenly acting younger than their age? (For example, are they having more trouble leaving you, unable to toilet train, or unable to play by themselves? Does it feel like they are suddenly more dependent on you?)
  • Is my family able to accept help from others?
  • Do I resent that other people seem happy?
  • Do I feel angry that others can lead normal, cancer-free lives?
  • Are financial or insurance problems making it harder for me to deal with my family?

Many of these problems happen in all families at some point and to some degree. If you answer yes to any of these questions, it does not mean you or your family is in trouble. But things may seem worse now. The bad times may seem to last longer, and your efforts to change things for the better may not seem to be working. In the typical family, with its mixture of different personalities and ways of behaving, change can be and usually is hard. Recognizing a problem and understanding why you or your family members act in certain ways are important steps in figuring out how to get past the hard times.

A family counselor knows how the behavior of one person in the family can affect the family as a whole. One problem may be the way family members communicate (or don’t communicate) with one another. There may be some hard feelings among family members about things that are hurtful from the past. Some of these feelings may keep people from getting support, from both inside the family and outside of the family. Sometimes tension in a family keeps family members from working well together, and doesn’t let them feel good about a situation. Sometimes it’s much easier for someone outside the family to look at problems from a new viewpoint and suggest ways for you to help and support each other.

Last Medical Review: 08/09/2012
Last Revised: 08/09/2012