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

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What can I expect with individual counseling?

Individual counseling offers a chance for you (or you and your child) to sit down and talk with a counselor about worries and concerns. The counselor may ask some questions about you and your family and help you figure out what is bothering you the most. Finding out how you have resolved problems in the past, including what is or is not working now, is useful in starting the process of helping you. Then you can help yourself and your family. The counselor can help you sort out the most pressing needs first.

As those concerns are settled, you will move on to less pressing issues. You may talk about a number of ways to solve a problem before you decide what to try first. For some, just talking about problems may not seem as helpful as doing something to solve the problem. This is easy to understand, especially for people who are used to working things out for themselves. But sometimes the best ways of dealing with and even talking about cancer requires patience and time.

Problem-solving can be affected by many factors. These include:

  • Your feelings about the situation
  • Your personal traits and qualities, as well as those of your family members
  • Relationships between family members
  • Your ability and your family’s ability to be flexible and to try new things
  • All of the other things that are going on at the same time in your life besides the cancer

For example, worrying about your job or money concerns may make it hard to focus on your children or family at home. And if you have side effects from treatment, you may not have the reserve to deal with your child’s behavior as you did before cancer.

Remember to be easy on yourself—you are going through a really hard time—and realize that as much as you would like to, you just can’t control everything the way you would like. Find a professional who wants to help you feel less alone and overwhelmed. No one can or should try to handle cancer by themselves.

Try not to get discouraged. Problem-solving often requires some trial and error. You may use a number of strategies before you find an approach that is right for your family. And remember, sometimes the goal is just to talk it out and clear your head of worries so that you and your family can work together to do all the things you need to do during this time.

Children and counseling

If your child has a counselor, you will meet with the counselor, too. You will either go along with your child, or you may meet with the counselor alone for an update on your child’s progress. Counselors who specialize in helping young children often use play therapy to figure out what’s worrying the child and help him or her express what they are feeling. Children have strong emotions, but are usually not able to express them in words like adults can. Their feelings are often shown in actions, or in artwork and play.

Teens, in contrast, often talk more easily about problems with a therapist they can relate to. Finding someone with experience in working with teens is very helpful. Even so, your teen might resist the idea of counseling. After all, it can be hard for any of us to accept the idea that getting help and changing our old habits may help us. Teens must also fight normal feelings of uncertainty about who they are along with their need to separate from adults as a normal part of growing up. So sometimes your teen may need an extra push to get started in counseling. But don’t give up—they might thrive under the individual attention and support of a counselor.

Here are some suggestions that may ease the process when planning counseling for your child:

  • Tell your child about your concern when you see him or her suffering.
  • Give your kids a choice about whom to see—a school counselor, a youth pastor, or someone they know and trust may be easier for them to accept than a complete stranger.
  • Ask them to commit to 1 or 2 sessions and then agree to take another look at how they feel about the counseling.
  • Get the help of a trusted, mature, and supportive adult who is close to the child.
  • Stress that counseling is always confidential and that the counselor needs the teen’s OK to talk to a parent about what’s going on. (The only exception to this rule is if the person is planning to hurt themselves or someone else; professionals must take some action to help prevent physical harm or death.)

If you don’t succeed in getting counseling for your child, try getting help for yourself. Changing some of your interactions with your child or teen may help them as much as counseling.

What is psychoeducational counseling?

There’s a special form of counseling called educational counseling or psychoeducational counseling. Major cancer centers have been using this approach for the past 30 years or so. If you live in an area that is able to do psychosocial research or offers programs based on research that has been done in the past, you might be able to take advantage of such a program. Some such programs might even be offered at low or no cost to you.

One of the newer methods is called a problem-solving approach. Using this method, you might work with a counselor for a limited period of time (for example, three 50-minute sessions) about one certain problem that you and the counselor have identified as something that you would like to tackle. You and the therapist are working on problems that you are having right now, short-term issues, not long-term issues that seem as if they will go on and on. And the problems you work on are directly linked to your cancer, not other unrelated problems.

Several studies have shown that this type of problem-solving helps the patient or family member work with the counselor as a team. They can break down a problem into manageable steps with actions that really make a difference in changing the outcome of a problem. This approach seems to reduce levels of psychological distress as shown by the follow-up research.


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