How Will My Child React?

A child’s emotional reaction to this news will depend on many things, including how the information is given to them and the child’s experience with illness. Sometimes parents worry about showing unpleasant emotions in front of their children. They may worry this will scare the children or may fear that their own grief, anxiety, or pain will somehow affect their child’s ability to cope with the illness.

 In the media and from others, you often get advice to keep a "positive attitude." While it’s true you might be better able to handle cancer and its treatment when you are able to look at things in a positive light, that is not always possible. When people try to deny the very real feelings of fear and sadness, which are a part of any cancer diagnosis, the effort often just doesn’t work. The energy it takes to hold in “bad” feelings can make coping much harder.

For many people, a grieving process starts with a cancer diagnosis. It’s normal to be sad and upset after being told you have cancer. It often feels as if nothing will ever be the same. Patients grieve for the loss of safety and predictability in their lives, and for the future that may not turn out as planned. If they can face these feelings, it’s might be easier for them to work on meeting  the challenges ahead. Parents and other adults can model healthy expressions of a full range of emotions. This allows children to express their emotions as well. No one wants to alarm their children by being hysterical. But there’s nothing wrong with shedding a few tears when your family has a crisis.

Parents can tell their kids that there will be times when they will need to cry, because it helps them feel better. Parents can assure them that at some point they won’t need to cry about the situation, but it’s OK for them to express all of their feelings. Everyone deals with problems in a different way, and it’s fine to feel angry or sad as long as you don’t use these feelings to hurt themselves or others. It’s important for parents to give themselves permission and time to figure out what’s best for them and each family member.

Remember, prior experience will affect children’s reactions. If other family members, friends, or acquaintances have died from cancer then children may assume that will happen again. Make sure they understand that each person is different, and just because Grandpa died 5 years ago doesn’t mean the same thing will happen now. Cancer treatment changes from year to year and better treatments are being tested all the time. Even though no one can predict the future, more people are approaching cancer treatment today with new hope.

Every child responds in his or her own way to the news of a parent’s cancer diagnosis.

The child’s age, personality, relationship to the parent, and the way information is presented are just a few factors that can influence how a child will react. A child who is very dependent may become even more so during that crisis of a new cancer diagnosis. A child who always imagines the worst may do so now. A child who plays rough with his toys when upset may get even rougher.

Children can’t always tell you in words, but may show you how they feel.

Most parents get an idea about what’s going on with their kids by watching how they act. A parent who sees their kids fighting with each other after learning about the diagnosis can probably assume that this is their way of showing they’re upset. Parents can put this into words by saying something like, "I know everybody is more worried right now, but let’s talk about this instead of fighting." Children’s language is play and feeling may be expressed in their play as well. Their dolls may become "sick." They may also express themselves through drawing or coloring.

A child may act less mature when upset.

In general, parents can expect that the stage of a child’s development dictates how well he or she understands what’s going on. Children tend to regress (act younger) when they are under stress. Adults often do the same. A child who has just become toilet trained may start having accidents. A child who has gone off to kindergarten quite happily may become upset when they have to be away from the parent. Kids who have problems paying attention in school might have even more trouble than before. Even older children may regress. This may show itself in separation anxiety with a reluctance to leave the parent(s). Sleep disturbances are also common at all ages. Children may have trouble sleeping or alone or have nightmares.

The child’s level of trust will show up in their behavior.

In most cases, children who are truthfully told what’s happening from the very start will be less anxious than children whose parents try to avoid answering questions. Being honest with your children during this time can help build trust. This doesn’t mean you should tell them everything all at once. For younger children, it’s best to give out the information in small doses, ask them if they have questions, and then answer their questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them you will have to find out, and then get back to them. You can keep them up to date as events progress.

Cancer treatment will bring out new and different responses from children.

Telling children about your cancer diagnosis is different from helping them deal with the daily reality of treatment. As you get ready to move into cancer treatment, you might want to see Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Treatment. It has helpful tips and information about talking with children of different ages about cancer and its treatment.

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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