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Is My Child OK?

Helping Children Cope with a Family Member’s Cancer

by Kathleen McCue, MA, LSW, CCLS

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Someone in your family is dealing with cancer. It might be you, your spouse, or a grandparent. Whoever it is, it’s someone your child loves.

You’ve read all the articles and books on how to talk to children about cancer, spoken with hospital social workers and counselors, and done the best job you could to inform your child about what he or she will experience as a result of having cancer in the family. But how do you know if your child understands, if he or she is really doing OK with this major family challenge?

Behavior Clues
There are several ways to gauge how well your child is coping. As the parent, you are the best judge of your child’s reactions to a disruptive family event. Trust your instincts. If your child seems to be managing well, if he is going on with his life in a normal manner, then he is probably OK. The following are a few areas of behavior that will give you clues as to how well your child is coping:

If routine activities, like sleeping, eating, dressing, and going to the bathroom, carry on about the same as before the cancer diagnosis, then things are probably all right.

Make sure that your child’s routine stays as normal as possible, especially during the chaos of diagnostic tests and treatment decisions.

Author of Article photo

Kathleen McCue

If your child is still interacting with friends and enjoying normal activities, like play dates, birthday parties, and his favorite sports, he is maintaining a good balance in his life.

If your child is still managing school and assignments at about the same level as before the family member’s cancer, you will know that worry is not disrupting his academic performance.

If your little one is more emotional than before and seems to “melt down” more frequently, he may need some additional help in coping.

Sometimes children’s worries about a loved one’s cancer produce concerns about their own health. Frequent health inquiries, such as complaints about stomachaches and headaches, may be signs that your child is more upset about the cancer than he can verbalize.

Stress Points
Certain particularly difficult stress points exist during the cancer experience. These are the times your child is most likely to falter and show behavioral or emotional reactions to an adult’s cancer. These difficult times include, but are not limited to, the following:

Time of diagnosis
This is a difficult time for everyone in the family. The sooner you can give children adequate information, the better. Make sure that your child’s routine stays as normal as possible, especially during the chaos of diagnostic tests and treatment decisions.

Separation from parents
Any time a child must be apart from their security system, their home and parents, is a time of potential stress responses. If you are in the hospital, spending a lot of time visiting a sick grandparent, or just very busy managing the normal activities of work, home, and now cancer, your child may react to this new state of separation by showing distress.

Treatment changes, for better or worse
A child will get used to the routine of daily radiation therapy, weekly trips to the doctor, or even chronic fatigue that results in naps every afternoon. Once that routine has been established, children tend to adapt and adjust their needs to that schedule. However, when things change (for better or worse), children often react with increased worry and behaviors that indicate distress.

There is one particular coping mechanism often used by children that can be a puzzle to parents. It’s called avoidance. Children are often excellent at putting things that worry them out of their minds. You might hear someone ask your child, “How is Grandpa?” and hear your child’s surprising answer of “good” or “fine.” Perhaps you just shared that Grandpa isn’t doing so well. Did your child not hear you? Is he in a state of denial? Actually, he is engaged in the very healthy process of trying not to think about or talk about something over which he has no control. This is a positive coping mechanism, and one that helps children maintain their day-to-day lives despite the challenges that cancer often imposes on a family. As a parent, pay attention to the behaviors that indicate difficulty coping, and stay a bit more vigilant during stress points. This will help you better support your child when someone in the family is diagnosed with cancer.

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Kathleen McCue is the children’s program director at The Gathering Place,, a cancer support center in Northeast Ohio.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.