How Can I Reassure My Child That Everything Will Be Fine?

Parents probably cannot offer the kind of overall reassurance they would like to when they first learn they have cancer. This is because no one really knows at that point how treatment will go and whether everything really will be OK. You don’t want to say this if it isn’t true, because you can lose the child’s trust. There are things that parents can do to help their kids cope.

Parents can reassure children that no matter what happens, they will always be cared for. Children may want a specific plan. If the parent is feeling sick, they will arrange for someone else to fill in. Telling children, "If something were to happen to me then…"

Children of single parents may worry in particular who will care for them if their parent dies. The most important issue for children of any age is their own sense of security and safety. A parent’s cancer can make families feel that their lives are totally out of control. Though it may be difficult to discuss the worst case scenario, children need to know that there is a plan and that they will be cared for no matter what happens.

Parents should try to keep as much of their children’s lives the same as possible. Children especially young children thrive on routine and predictability. This may sound like a tall order, but preparing children and accepting help from others can help life run more smoothly.

When you talk about your diagnosis and treatment, it’s a good idea to prepare children for the fact that certain changes will need to be made in the family routine. Parents will need to call on others to fill in for them during periods of active treatment. Loved ones, friends, neighbors, and even the parents of your children’s friends can be a great help in keeping daily life as normal as it can be.

When these changes in family routines are explained to children, they offer a powerful message that Mom or Dad is still in charge and the child’s needs have not been forgotten. Life will go on as normally as possible given the crisis the family is facing. The children will not be left on their own. Parents should confirm that no one is happy that life seems turned upside down right now, but it won’t last forever. In the meantime, tell children over and over again you love them and that you are working to be sure they are cared for.

Sometimes kids react strongly to changes in routine and parents may feel frustrated and even angry as they try to meet everyone’s needs. Keep in mind that it’s no one’s fault when a parent gets cancer and nothing can be done change this, but people do have choices about how to handle the situation. Find something in the situation that the child has a choice about, for example whom they would like to meet them at the school bus, or what they’d like to take with them when they go to a neighbor’s after school. Children are not expected to like it when their routines are disrupted—adults don’t like it either. Parents can admit this to their children, along with the fact that they have a right to feel angry and upset right now and they can also model healthy coping for the children.

Children want to be useful

Teens present special challenges because they tend to test their need for independence. It makes sense to ask them to be there to fill in more for an absent or ill parent. But sometimes there may be a fine line between asking for help from a teenager and giving them too much responsibility.  It can help to assure them that you know they need their own time and space in spite of the fact that a parent is ill.

Even younger children may want to feel useful by helping more around the house or caring for the sick parent. It’s important to recognize this desire in children and teens without overburdening them. It may also help to set up family meetings in which parents and children can review how things are going in the family and decide what should be different or stay the same.

Some families find it hard to ask for help. We know from experience that people who try to manage cancer alone will have a harder time. Try to remember that usually people really do want to help, and if you let them, they feel useful and needed. You will need to tell them exactly what you and your family need from them. If no one is available to help, patients or their loved ones should ask to talk with the hospital social worker or the nurse in the doctor’s office about any community agencies that can help.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: July 20, 2016 Last Revised: December 20, 2016

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