This is a guest post by Jill Mitchell, PhD, LCSW, OSW-C and member of MyLifeLine.org’s Oncology Advisory Council.
For parents or grandparents with cancer, “What should I say to my young kids?” and “How can I help them to cope?” are often primary concerns.
Although one person in the family has the physical disease of cancer, everyone in the family may struggle with the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of the illness. Here are some pointers to keep in mind in helping the children in your life to cope with their loved one’s diagnosis with cancer.
- Communicate with your children
- Let them know that you are open to their questions
- Be honest
- Use the word “cancer” so that you can own that definition, and help dispel some of the misconceptions that they might be exposed to.
- Check-in and encourage questions from your child, but also follow your child’s lead with regard to how much information they want to hear at one time. Just like adults, children sometimes need to process the information in bite-sized pieces.
- Give children an outlet for their questions, thoughts, and emotions
- For younger children, who are not as verbal, you may want to encourage them to draw pictures to express what they’re thinking or feeling
- Since kids will sometimes be as eager to “protect” you from scary thoughts as you are eager to protect them, it can be helpful to identify an additional calm and trusted adult (teacher, aunt, grandparent, etc.) with whom they can talk if they have questions or concerns.
- Kids often want to help
- Assist them in figuring out age-appropriate ways to help you through this process (for example — drawing pictures for the loved one, doing dishes, walking the dog, etc.)
- But re-affirm that school is their primary “job”
- Keep as much structure as possible
- Some disruption in schedules will be inevitable. That said, over the long-run as much consistency as you can keep for your child’s schedule (continuing to attend daycare, school, camp, or team practices, for example) can help them to cope.
What are some common concerns that children often have?
- Younger children have a tendency toward “magical thinking”. They may think that they have caused the cancer because they acted badly, or that they could control the cancer through doing everything right. So, it is important to be on the lookout for this, and to let children know that they are not responsible for the cancer or for your health. In addition, help guide the child to find age-appropriate ways to show their support (helping with chores, drawing pictures or writing cards, etc.)
- Kids may also be afraid to get close to, hug, or kiss someone with cancer for fear that they may get sick. It’s important to clear up any misconceptions about “catching” cancer.
- Don’t be surprised if most of your child’s questions focus on what will happen to them through this process –
- “Will I get this?”
- “Will I be able to go to the birthday party?”
- And especially, “Who will take care of me if Mom/Dad gets too sick?”
These are normal, healthy questions. Having a plan in place that the child is aware of can be very helpful.
- Be prepared for the possibility that your child might ask if you could die.
- Think in advance about how you might answer this.
- Acknowledge this fear.
- AND, reassure your child that you have a team of medical providers who are helping you.
Some other things you may want to consider:
- How emotionally ready are you to talk? If you feel overwhelmed, is there another adult/family member who could help with the discussions?
- Keep the child’s school in the loop. School can be a safe-haven and a source of supportive structure for the child. It can be helpful to identify a main contact at the school to keep informed and to help inform you if they notice behavioral changes in your child that may be signs of distress.
- Make time for fun, play, and social interaction because this can be as critical in helping children to cope as it is for adults.
Other resources that you might wish to explore:
- Speak with an oncology social worker at your site to discuss additional strategies and local resources.
- Consider consulting with a therapist who specializes in working with children coping with grief and loss, especially if you notice significant changes in your child’s behavior.
- A helpful book is: “How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness”, by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn (2011).
- Some additional websites and resources to explore: tellingkidsaboutcancer.com
- For teens: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/When-Your-Parent-Has- Cancer.pdf
About the author: Jill Mitchell received her doctorate in Medical Anthropology from UCLA, where she explored the intersection of culture, biology, and psychology in research focused on women’s experiences with metastatic breast cancer. After realizing her passion for working with people with cancer, she then went on to complete a Masters in Social Work. Dr. Mitchell, is presently an oncology-certified licensed clinical social worker with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Colorado, where she counsels patients one-on-one, facilitates various support groups, and coordinates an international educational webinar series for psychosocial oncology professionals. She also serves as a volunteer on the Advisory Council for the National non-profit, MyLifeLine.org. Dr. Mitchell values humanity in the context of medical treatment, getting to know patients as people first, and helping patients and survivors find peace, meaning, and growth, even in the midst of their experience with cancer.