When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it can have a huge emotional and psychological effect on them. The response can vary from child to child, but most children feel a range of emotions, these feelings may include: shock, confusion, fear, anger, and anxiety. Reactions can also be different based on their developmental level and personality.
Some signs to look out for:
- An increased fear about separation
- Worry about medical procedures
- Increased clinginess to caregivers
- Increase in acting out behaviors such as screaming, throwing tantrums, hitting
- Withdrawal from others
- Loss of usual interests in play activities
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Experiencing nightmares and/or more difficulty sleeping
- Regression to earlier developmental stages such as thumb sucking or bed wetting
- Changes in eating habits
Older children may also have increased worries about missing school, falling behind, and not being around their friends. They may also experience feelings of guilt that they have somehow caused the illness because they behaved bad or did something wrong, or guilt about causing distress in family members.
Tips for parents:
- Communicating with your child is key
- Be open and honest – for example if a procedure may cause pain, be honest but then reassure your child that the pain will be temporary
- Help your child communicate what they are feeling, either verbally or non-verbally. For example, art, music, and writing can be good tools to help your child express what they are feeling
- Remind your child they are not responsible for the illness
- Prepare your child in advance for any upcoming treatments – talk to them about what will occur, how long it will take, any side effects, and what it might feel like after
- Encouraging your child to ask questions is especially important
- Prepare a bag with soothing/comforting items for them to have with them at the hospital – such as a blanket, stuffed animal, books, etc.
- Communicating with others
- Pay attention to siblings needs, behaviors and emotions, and encourage them to talk about their feelings
- When your child does return to school, help prepare for questions that may be asked by their classmates about their cancer
- Schedule a time to meet with the teacher, and other individuals involved so that everyone knows what to expect, and to discuss any accommodations that may be needed
- Give your child time to play and engage in other age-appropriate activities
Recommended books for children and their siblings:
- Harry goes to the hospital: a story for children about what it’s like to be in the hospital (2008) By Howard J. Bennett. Age range: 4-8
- The bald headed princess: cancer, chemo, and courage (2010) By: Maribeth R. Ditmars. Age range: 8-13.
- Imagine a rainbow: a child’s guide for soothing pain (2006) By: Brenda S. Milles. Age range: 4-8
- Upside down and backwards: a sibling’s journey through childhood cancer (2014) By: Julie Greves, CCLS, Katy Tenhulzen CCLS, & Fred Wilkinson, LICSW. Age range: 8-13
- What about me? When brothers and sisters get sick (1992) By Allan Peterkin. Age range: 4-8
Remember, to also take care of yourself!!! Having a child diagnosed with cancer can take a toll on everyone involved, especially caregivers. It is important to take the time to process and understand your own feelings regarding your child’s illness and allow yourself some “self-care” time.
Children and families who are experiencing increased difficulties coping with an illness may benefit from seeking professional help with a psychologist. A psychologist can help support the family through the difficult time, and provide the child a space to express their feelings and teach tools to better cope with the illness.
Written by Lauren Feiden, PsyD