Helping Your Child Cope
Regardless of their age, children are usually aware when their health is causing concern for their parents. Your child may experience a variety of emotions in quick succession. Feelings such as anger, guilt, fear, anxiety and sadness are all common reactions.
Your child's treatment will involve new people and experiences that he or she may find frightening. Your child may be admitted to the hospital almost as soon as he or she is diagnosed. This may be the first time he or she has stayed away from home for an extended period.
Some parents feel they should discuss the illness with their child but not use the word "cancer" and shield him or her from information about the illness and treatment. Keep in mind that your child will fill in gaps of information with his or her imagination. Sharing information about the illness and treatment can help your child build trust in both you and the treatment team and feel comfortable talking about fears and concerns. Knowing about cancer and understanding the importance of treatment may help your child cooperate and learn, with your help, to get through difficult situations. Your child's treatment team can help you explain the diagnosis and treatment.
What to Tell Your Child
When speaking with your child about his or her illness, keep these talking points in mind:
- Give your child information that's age appropriate - a level that matches his or her ability to understand. You may need to give your child information more than once. Older children may want to know more about their illness and treatment.
- Explain that all cancers aren't the same. Many children, especially older ones, have heard of cancer and may know of someone who has died from cancer. Explain to your child that cancers affecting older adults are different than childhood leukemia or lymphoma.
- Encourage your child to talk about fears and concerns and answer his or her questions. Acknowledge your child's behaviors and emotions as they arise.
- Let your child know you'll stay with him or her as much as possible. If you'll be separated from your child, explain this in advance and show other forms of support in your absence, such as phone calls and photos.
- Help your child recognize that the doctors and nurses are working to help him or her get well, even though they may have to do things that cause pain. Explain the reasons for tests and treatments.
- Understand that at times your child may act as if there were nothing wrong. You may wonder if he or she understands what's happening. Children commonly process information in small amounts, which helps them cope at their own pace.
Actions You Can Take
Other actions you can take to help your child cope:
- Introduce your child to treatment team members who provide psychosocial support, such as a psychologist, nurse, social worker and child life specialist. In addition to helping you explain the illness and its treatment to your child, they can help your child better understand disease information through medical play or other activities.
- Help your child stay connected with friends from home and school. Arrange for phone calls, emails, letters, photos and visits when your child is feeling up to it.
- Arrange for friends to have accurate information about your child's diagnosis and treatment. Friends will feel more connected to your child when they're kept "in the loop."
- Ask your child's teacher to make a personal phone call, send a note or visit your son or daughter.
- Give your child the chance to make choices whenever possible. For example, your child can't choose whether to take medicine but might be able to choose which pill to take first. Your child can make certain food choices and select movies to watch and books to read.
- Acknowledge and praise your child when he or she is doing things that are difficult. The best way to reinforce behaviors that you want your child to continue is to give praise intermittently.
- Give your child appropriate outlets to express feelings, such as drawing, keeping a journal or playing with a special medical play doll to lessen fears.
- Show that you respect your child's anger, worry, sadness or fear if he or she starts to act or behave inappropriately, but be firm in letting him or her know that acting out behaviors aren't acceptable. Your child's feelings, such as anxiety or confusion, can cause disruptive behavior, and you may be inclined to ignore it. But by setting limits now for your child, he or she will be better able to adapt to rules later when returning to school.
- Keep your child busy with activities during treatment to take his or her mind off of taking medications, getting poked by needles and undergoing chemotherapy or other interventions.
- Ask for professional assistance for your child if he or she is having an especially difficult time adjusting to the diagnosis and treatment.
- Provide structure to increase your child's sense of control. Children crave structure in their environment. Make things as consistent as possible for your child, such as a regular routine you follow during your time together in the hospital or clinic. Recognize that giving your son or daughter gifts all the time or stopping all previous forms of discipline is confusing to the child.