Ways to help kids cope when a parent has cancer

February 19, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

It can be very upsetting for children to learn that their parent has cancer.

You may want to shield them from this news, but children can sense when something is wrong. They will see that you don’t feel well or notice changes in the daily routine if you are spending more time away from home at medical appointments. And hiding the news will only give your child the chance to come up with their own (often false) explanations about what might be wrong.

Sharing the diagnosis and having an open and honest conversation gives your child the facts and a safe place for them to ask questions.

The National Cancer Institute makes note of a few things children, regardless of age, should know about cancer:

  • Nothing they did, thought or said caused you to get cancer.
  • Cancer is not contagious, so your child can’t “catch” it from you.
  • They are not alone. Many other kids who have a parent with cancer have felt the same way they do now.
  • It is OK to feel sad, scared or angry.
  • A cancer diagnosis does not mean you will die from it and many people live with cancer for a long time.
  • Your child cannot make you well, but there are things they can do to help.
  • Scientists are discovering new and better ways to find and treat cancer.
  • Family members may react differently to the cancer diagnosis.
  • You will make sure that your child is taken care of, no matter what happens to you.

Breaking the news

You may want to consider writing down what you will say to your child. Having your spouse or a friend with you as you talk to your child also can make the conversation easier. If you have more than one child of different ages, it can be helpful to talk to them individually to keep the conversation age appropriate.

While remaining calm and reassuring is important, it may not be possible throughout the conversation — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing a parent become sad or cry can validate a child’s feeling of sadness and show them it is OK to feel sad or cry.

If your child becomes upset, let them know it is OK and that you understand how difficult this may be. If the conversation becomes too much to handle, let your child have some space and reassure them that your door is open whenever they are ready to talk more.

There is no perfect way to have this conversation, so do your best. It is okay to say, “I don’t know,” but that you’ll try to find the answer. Most importantly, reassure your child that you are going to work through cancer together, as a family. Learn more about how to talk to your child about cancer.

During treatment

Keeping the door to communication open and staying connected with your child will be important throughout your cancer journey.

If you are undergoing cancer treatment, be sure to talk to your child about what your treatment will be, how it may affect you and how your family’s routine may be affected. Let them know their routines may be affected and keep them informed of any changes. For example, if you normally drop your child off at school but will not be able to do so on treatment days, let them know what the plan is and who will be taking them to school.

Letting your child play a role

Your child may also want to find ways to help you. Let them. Younger children may be able to handle smaller tasks like bringing you a blanket or a glass of water, while older children can take on some extra chores. Thank them for their help, but remind them it is not their responsibility to care for you all the time and that you have a medical team that is helping you on your cancer journey.

Time together

While it may look a little different for now, find time for family time. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Snuggling with your child on the couch and watching a favorite TV show can be comforting for both of you.

Keeping a routine

Encourage your child to continue with their regular activities. Let them know they don’t need to feel guilty about staying involved in sports or visiting friends during this time. Talk about how routines can help people cope.

Communicating feelings

Throughout all of this, it is important to be in tune to how your child is coping, as they may feel confused, scared, guilty or angry at times. They may react to the cancer by regressing, becoming more clingy or getting into trouble at school or at home.

Remind your child how much you love them and that you’ll work together as a family to help one another through this difficult time.

While it is important for you to communicate with your child, don’t be afraid to seek professional help from a counselor or therapist if they are having difficulty processing your diagnosis.

Find a cancer support group.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

What are ways you’ve seen families cope? Tell us in the below comments.

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