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Parenting with Cancer

How to Help Your Children Cope with Your Diagnosis

by Marisa Minor, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C

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How can I help my children cope with my cancer diagnosis? This ques­tion is one of the first many parents ask after being diagnosed with cancer. It may seem inevitable that cancer will have an impact on your child’s life. But the good news is, with healthy coping strategies and open communication among family members, the impact can be positive and meaningful.

Where do I begin?
It’s common for parents to want to protect their children by withholding upsetting information, but research shows that a parent’s can­cer diagnosis affects a child whether or not the child is told of the condition. Additionally, anxiety levels tend to be higher in children who aren’t told about their parent’s cancer, compared with children who are engaged in an open discussion about the diagnosis.

Honest, age-appropriate communi­cation is best. It’s important to speak to your children soon after your diagnosis, and as information changes, to avoid them hearing about it from someone else. If you have a conversation about cancer early in the process, it sends the message that it’s OK to talk about it. This also helps model healthy commu­nication habits and builds trust between parent and child.

Before beginning a discussion about cancer, consider your child’s age and developmental stage. Some children are too young to verbalize questions, and others may be too afraid to ask. Also, find out what your child already knows about cancer.

Plan family activities where cancer is not the focus.

Author of Article photo

Marisa Minor

During initial conversations, be sure you actually say the word cancer, rather than just saying mommy or daddy is sick. This is important so your child won’t confuse cancer with an illness he or she can catch, like a cold or the flu. Focusing on the “Five C’s” can make it easier to remember the most important points to address when talk­ing to your child:

  • It’s called cancer.
  • You can’t catch it.
  • You can’t control it.
  • You didn’t cause it.
  • You (the child) can’t cure it.

One concern for parents is the pos­sibility that their children will associate cancer with death. Children may not ask about death outright, but many will wonder about it. It’s important to address the issue with your child even if he or she doesn’t ask. This discussion will vary, depending on your prognosis. There are many useful books and resources available to assist you in addressing this sensitive subject. A social worker or counselor can also provide information on ways to discuss death with children.

What behaviors should I watch for?
If your child is exhibiting behavior changes following a cancer diagnosis in the family, it may be a sign that he or she is anxious but is not expressing his or her feelings. Some behavior changes may include:

  • regression (for example, thumb sucking or bedwetting after the child has already outgrown these behaviors)
  • depression
  • poor performance in school
  • anger
  • physical complaints (unexplained headaches, stomachaches, etc.)
  • withdrawal
  • clinginess

Many of these behaviors are com­mon and age-appropriate, but you might want to seek additional support if the changes begin around the time of your diagnosis and are unusual reactions for your child. You should also inform your child’s teachers and school coun­selor about your cancer, as they can help watch for behavior changes and provide support when needed.

To help calm the chaos that cancer can create within the family, schedule special one-on-one time with your children or plan family activities where cancer is not the focus. Consider watch­ing movies as a family or establishing weekly game nights. If your children enjoy arts and crafts, encourage them to decorate scarves or hats for you to wear if you’ve lost your hair. These activities provide ways for your family to stay connected and help your children feel more supported and less anxious.

If talking isn’t your child’s thing, help them find other outlets for their feelings. Creating art, en­gaging in play therapy, playing sports, or joining a support group are healthy alter­natives that can help children learn to express their emotions. Most impor­tantly, engage them in activities and discussions that foster honest and age-appropriate com­munication. This can help strengthen your family bond, as well as teach your children vital coping skills, which can last far beyond your cancer journey.

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Marisa Minor is a social work supervisor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. She is the program coordinator for KIWI (Kids Inquire – We Inform, mdanderson.org/kiwi), a com­prehensive support program at MD Anderson for children whose parents have cancer.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.