A family gathered around talking with a child

This website is a general introductory resource for parents or caregivers regarding how to provide support to children during their parent's cancer journey. Please contact your Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center oncology social worker for personalized care and support.

Please be aware that not all of the information given here may apply to you and your family. You are the expert regarding your child and his/her needs. The following information provides general recommendations for parents and caregivers of children of a range of ages.

Although there is no ideal time to share the news about your cancer with others, we recommend that you first take the time to process your diagnosis and information about your illness before sharing it with your children. Finding a time when both you and your children are relaxed and comfortable can help to make this conversation easier.

Should I tell my children?

Research has found that, yes, you should tell your children about your cancer diagnosis. Children are very observant and usually can sense if something is worrying their parents or troubling the family. Trying to hide your illness from your children may cause them to become more worried than necessary and afraid to ask you questions.

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Different Ages, Different Needs:

Children will comprehend illness differently at different ages. However, because all children are unique, your child may not fit perfectly into the “developmental guidelines” of his/her age group. You are the expert on your own children and know how best to care for them. The following are generalized recommendations for parents and caregivers.

While infants and babies do not have the language to understand illness and cancer, they are still impacted when a parent or caregiver has cancer. In particular, they may react emotionally to any separation from their parent and changes in their routine. Meeting the physical and emotional needs of your infant or baby is important during this time.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Babies do not have an understanding of cancer but will sense changes in their daily routines.
  • Babies are aware of changes in behavior and their caregivers'; feelings.
  • It is important to keep to your child’s routine as much as possible. If another caregiver is helping to care for your child, ask them to follow your child’s routine.
  • Your infant may react by being fussy, cranky, clingy, or have changes in their eating and sleeping habits. They may also have tantrums more often.
  • Physical affection may help to reassure your child.

Toddlers and preschool children experience a wide range of understanding of illness. It is the age of magical thinking and fantasy. These children often feel a sense of guilt around a parent’s illness, incorrectly believing that they themselves are to blame for the illness.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Toddlers and preschoolers learn by seeing: use picture books to explain your cancer.
  • Children process information differently from adults; your child may hear what you say, go and play, and then come back with questions before going off to play again.
  • This is the age of magical thinking; your child may believe that he/she caused the cancer.
  • Children this age may believe that cancer is contagious.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers thrive on routine and may become distressed if schedules change without explanation.
  • Unexplained parental behavior or absences may be distressing to children in this age group.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers may seek additional physical affection during difficult times.
  • If a parent is hospitalized, toddlers and preschoolers should be given age appropriate information and told where their parent is. FaceTiming or speaking by phone may be helpful during times of separation if possible.

What your child needs to know:

  • The kind of cancer you have and where it is in your body.
  • Any noticeable physical changes that may occur in you due to your cancer treatment.
  • How cancer will affect your family.
  • Your child did not cause the cancer.
  • Cancer is not contagious.
  • Who will help care for them if there are any changes in caregiving during your illness.
  • All questions about cancer are okay.
  • It's okay to feel different kinds of emotions, including anger, sadness, and even joy.

Elementary school children are usually inquisitive and eager to learn. Open communication about your illness is incredibly important to children of this age. Children in this age group continue to engage in magical thinking and fantasy. These children may feel a sense of guilt around a parent’s illness, incorrectly believing that they themselves are to blame for the illness.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Elementary school children may be curious about the cancer and the treatments.
  • Children this age may wish to accompany you for treatments or regularly visit you in the hospital (or they may not).
  • Elementary school children may feel that their actions and behaviors influenced your illness.
  • It may be difficult for children this age to express their emotions with words.
  • Be aware that emotions and behaviors may change and/or be erratic.
  • Open communication is important; listen to your child's concerns and clear up any misunderstandings.
  • Children this age do best with a routine; try to keep to a schedule as much as possible.
  • Every child is different; try to be ready to help your child cope in his/her own way.
  • It may be important to inform your child’s school of your medical situation.
  • Having another close adult family member or friend to talk to about their concerns may comfort children this age.

What your child needs to know:

  • The kind of cancer you have and where it is located in your body.
  • The treatments that you’ll receive and any physical changes they may observe.
  • He/she did not cause the cancer.
  • Cancer is not contagious.
  • It is ok to feel different kinds of emotions, including anger, sadness, and even joy.
  • It’s okay to be curious and ask questions.

This age is an important time of transition towards independence. Children this age may be passionate, sensitive, impulsive, moody, and unpredictable. They may have difficulty expressing and/or controlling their emotions during these years.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Your child may begin to rely more on their friends for support.
  • A consistent daily schedule is important.
  • A child may react to a parent’s illness through their behavior, commonly displaying moodiness or other emotional extremes, and sometimes with a delayed reaction.
  • Continue checking in on your child throughout your treatment to make sure all his/her questions are answered.
  • It may be important to inform your child’s school of your medical situation.
  • Having another close adult family member or friend with whom they can talk about their concerns may comfort children this age.

What your child needs to know:

  • The kind of cancer you have and where it is in your body.
  • The treatments that you’ll receive and any physical changes they may observe.
  • What to expect regarding schedule changes and what will remain the same.
  • They are encouraged to seek outside comfort if desired (from friends, teachers, or non-immediate family members).
  • It’s okay to ask questions.

Teenagers are capable of abstract thinking and can understand complex relationships between events. They may have had education and experience that allows them to better process and understand a parent’s illness. Teenagers are actively involved with peers and activities as they try to build a sense of independence; this may deepen during your illness as an emotional outlet. It is also possible that your teenager will want to spend more time with the family. Good communication between parent/caregiver and child is important at this stage to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Your teenager may feel a range of emotions concerning your illness and treatment.
  • Teenagers may be able to take on additional responsibilities at home; however, it will be important for you to ensure that your teen does not take on more than is appropriate.
  • Teenagers may feel that no one understands what they are going through or how they feel.
  • Using outside resources can help in positive ways and reduce stress.
  • Support groups can be helpful resources for your teen.
  • It may be important to inform your child’s school of your medical situation.
  • Having another close adult family member or friend with whom they can talk about their concerns may comfort children this age.

What your child needs to know:

  • The kind of cancer you have and where it is in your body.
  • The treatments that your illness requires, and any noticeable physical changes that may occur.
  • All emotions are okay, including happiness and joy as well as fear, frustration, sadness and anger.
  • Where he/she may be able to find additional opportunities for support.
  • It’s okay to talk to non-immediate family like friends, teachers, school counselors, and other trusted people.
  • That they can continue their usual school and extracurricular activities with friends, pretty much as usual.
  • It is okay to ask any question at all about your cancer.

Your young adults are becoming independent and building a life of their own. It is important to maintain open communication, keeping them involved while allowing them to continue to build their new life simultaneously.

What you need to know as a parent/caregiver:

  • Open communication between parent and child is important to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Young adults may feel torn between establishing themselves as individuals and helping provide support/care to a sick parent.

What your child needs to know:

  • The kind of cancer you have and where it is located in your body.
  • Information about your treatment plan and possible physical changes they may observe.
  • Their own emotional health, physical needs, and personal responsibilities are important.
  • It is okay to express their feelings and emotions, and to ask questions.
  • Where he/she may be able to find additional opportunities for support.

 

 



Child coloring

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, you may have concerns about how younger members of your family are coping. Kids’ Club is a monthly group for children or grandchildren (ages 6 to 12) of people in treatment for cancer.

Kids Club meets monthly on Wednesday nights from 6:00-7:30pm at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, Washington, DC.

More Information


 

References:

"Children and Cancer." American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Inc., n.d. Web.

Christ, Grace H., MSW, DSW, and Adolph E. Christ, MD, DMS. "Current Approaches to Helping Children Cope with a Parent's Terminal Illness." Cancer J Clin 56.4 (2006): 197-212. Web.

"For Parents." Parenting At a Challenging Time. Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program, n.d. Web.

"How to Tell Your Children about Your Cancer Diagnosis." National Comprehensive Cancer Network. National Comprehensive Cancer Network, n.d. Web.