The impact of parental cancer on children

By: Cheryl E. Smith, LICSW, MSW, OSW-C .

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A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any stage of life, but for those with young children at home, it can take an especially hard toll on the family. The diagnosed parent can struggle with being a patient while still trying to maintain the duties and responsibilities of a parent.

Developmental perspective

Children will react differently to the diagnosis of a parent depending on their age. Between birth and a child’s first birthday, he or she does not have the cognitive capability to understand cancer. However, your baby may sense a change in the daily routine. This could cause changes in the baby’s eating and sleeping habits. The baby may cry more and could become clingier.

Combat some of these issues while you are away for appointments by using these tips to help maintain consistency and routine for your baby. When leaving your baby with others, give them a list of things your baby likes. Tell them how the baby likes to be held, what foods and toys are the baby’s favorite and what a typical day is like for the baby. If you are gone for an extended period of time, call home and talk to your baby. Hearing your voice can help put your baby at ease and reinforce your bond. If you have multiple people caring for your child, use the same portable crib every night. This will help with consistency.

As your child ages to the toddler phase, he or she will require more supervision and will crave more time with you. But as you undergo treatments, you may feel tired and not be always able to meet your toddler’s demands on your time. This may result in tantrums, changes in eating and sleep behaviors, and separation anxiety.

To help prevent some of these problems, try to maintain consistency. Keep to a routine as best as you can and make sure those caring for your child do the same. Things can happen unexpectedly, so always keep a go bag on hand filled with your toddler’s favorite toys, snacks, a change of clothes, and a list of your daily routine. You can also create a trouble-free play space for your child. Block off a safe area where your child can play and explore without you needing to entertain him or her.

The next stage of development is the preschool phase where kids are between the ages of 3 and 5. During this stage, they are becoming more imaginative and chatty, but they can also become easily frustrated. Kids have a basic understanding of illness, but they also participate in what is known as magical thinking. This means your child might think he or she did something to cause the cancer and make you sick. Play is important at this stage in your child’s life and you might see that his or her playtime revolves around sickness or doctors.

Like at the other stages in your child’s life, routine is key. Keeping a normal and regular schedule is important to your child’s well-being. When you are tired and stressed, it can be easy to implement rules out of frustration. So always try to think and talk about the rules you are going to use with your partner and any other person that may be caring for your child. A great way to keep behavior in check is by using a sticker chart to reward good behavior. You can also make sure that you spend some dedicated time with your child.

As your child ages, his or her understanding and reaction to your diagnosis will also change. Between the ages of 6 and 12, your child is just learning to manage his or her emotions. Your child may have misinformation about what cancer really is. At this point in your child’s development, rules and fairness matter and he or she may have a difficult time understanding why this is happening to your family. Your child also might seek to escape from your diagnosis. He or she might begin to distance himself or herself from you and turn to the safety of a friend’s house. Your child might begin to worry more, become angry or even hide his or her feelings.

To help, update your child’s school on your situation. The school counselor may be a good resource to help your child cope with the changes. You should also connect with the parents of your child’s friends. And while you don’t want to diminish your child’s involvement in activities, keeping a busy schedule may be difficult. Try to simplify after school schedules right from the start so your child isn’t forced to consistently miss or be late to activities. Once you are diagnosed, you may start receiving an influx of visitors. It is important to limit socializing and keep family time sacred. It is OK to say no to well-wishers.

As your child enters his or her teen years, he or she will experience a whole new range of emotions. Your teen may begin to think about life and death more. Like any teen, he or she may become moody and attempt to assert his or her independence. He or she may feel angry or frustrated with the situation and may find it difficult to communicate his or her emotions.

When you are dealing with teens, don’t loosen up on the rules. Don’t let your diagnosis be an excuse for your teen to do whatever he or she wants. It’s also important to tell your teen the truth. Kids are extremely perceptive and will know if you are hiding something from them. However, it is a good idea to have a discussion with your teen. Ask your child what he or she wants to know and how much he or she wants you to share. If you notice your teen is exhibiting behavior that is destructive or is showing signs of depression or anxiety, seek professional help.

No matter your child’s age, open and honest communication throughout your cancer journey is key. Being silent and keeping secrets is not ideal for your family. Don’t use euphemisms around younger children as this can cause additional confusion when they are “sick” or get “medicine.” Use the words cancer and chemotherapy. Although you may feel your children do not understand what is going on, they do. They hear and see more than you think. Discuss what is happening and how this will change your life. Be open to questions and if you don’t know the answer, you don’t have to answer right away. It is OK to take a moment and get back to your child later.

If you are struggling with how to talk to your child about cancer or need help getting the conversation started, there are lots of options and resources for you. Try talking to school counselors, your church family, social workers or a therapist. Sanford also offers Child Life Specialists who can help explain to your children what is going on in ways they will understand.