My child has cancer: How can I help him or her deal with his emotions
Children and adolescents handle bad news in different ways. When it comes to cancer, there are many factors such as the seriousness of the illness, the suffering that comes with it, having to miss school, going to another city for treatments, being forced to stop sports or activities that they love, and the impact the disease has on the family that can influence the way your child reacts. Here are some of the most common ways a child reacts to finding out about a cancer diagnosis.
Fear and anxiety are common feelings for a cancer patient. Just having to go through so many tests to get the diagnosis is scary. If hospitalization is required, the child can be confused and terrified. Knowing that your body is “not working properly” and that cancer cells are developing inside your body is frightening.
Blood tests, biopsies, lumbar punctures, bone marrow aspirations and x-rays are going to be part of their life now, but depending on their age they don’t really understand why they have to go through all of it or parents and doctors expect from them.
Questions come up: Will it hurt? Will I have any scars? How am I going to tell my friends? Will my parents still love me now? Will I die?
Why me? What have I done to deserve this? Life is unfair.Anger is a very common feeling for children with a critical illness. Having to do things that aren’t normal for a child his age, like taking pills, having tests, staying at the hospital, or having doctors, nurses and even their own parents invade their privacy, can be very frustrating and make them feel powerless.
Little children can think that getting sick is a punishment because they’ve done something wrong, thought bad things or told a lie. They can also feel responsible if there’s a family crisis as a result of the diagnosis.
Realizing that they will have to stop doing things they like because of their disease can also cause sadness. A trip that has to be cancelled or an activity they won’t be able to do anymore can be a big loss.
For adolescents, the idea of being different from their friends, having months and months of treatments ahead of them and not knowing how this will affect their lives, thinking the treatments may not work, the risk of a relapse, the change in their appearance or the way other people look at them can be too much to take and can lead to depression.
These emotions are real and their intensity varies according to the age, personality, ability to reason, maturity and family situation of each child. Most children have not yet learned how to identify and express these types of emotions.
Help your child deal with their emotions
Toddlers (0 to 3 years)
- Stay with your child for all tests and treatments
- Hold him in your arms and give hugs as needed
- Play with toys to keep him distracted
- Make sure he has his favorite teddy bear or blanket
- Minimize the number of visits from people who are not close to your child
- Make sure he sees his brothers and sisters often
- Decorate his hospital room so that it’s colourful and playful
- Stick with routine (naps, meals, playtime)
- Make sure to include fun time in his schedule
- Get in touch with the hospital specialists who are there for you (social worker, psychologist, child life specialists)
- Talk to other parents who have gone through the same thing to find out what worked for them
Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)
- Explain clearly – and often - what’s happening
- Console and reassure him when he feels angry or scared
- Make sure he is aware of what’s happening
- Don’t allow him to express himself with aggressive behaviour such as kicking or punching
- Let him cry; at this age, tears are a way of dealing with anger and fear
- Show him how to let go of his negative feelings (e.g. talking about it, drawing, or even punching a pillow)
- If possible, do physical activities
- Continue with his regular habits (naps, meal time, play time)
- Let the hospital staff know what approach to take with your child and how he has dealt with difficult situations in the past
- Explain your emotions if your child sees you cry
- Make sure he understands that it’s not his fault
School-aged children (6 to 12 years)
- Explain the diagnosis and the treatments to him
- Include him in all discussions with the doctors
- Answer his questions sincerely and simply, even if he asks you if he’s going to die (ask the medical team for help on how to answer this type of question)
- Be attentive - he might not be able de express his fears and emotions
- Make sure he understands that it’s not his fault that he’s sick
- Help him express his emotions and reassure him that they are justified (rage, fear, sadness)
- If he doesn’t want to share his emotions, do not insist
- Suggest that he keeps a personal diary
- Make sure he has fun things to do every day
- If possible, do physical activities
- Help him keep in touch with his friends, brothers and sisters, and family members he’s close to (laptop, phone, visits)
- Make plans for his return to school with his doctors and teachers
- Make him laugh
- Try to help him meet children his own age who are going through the same ordeal
Adolescents (13 to 18 years)
- Console him
- Involve him in all discussions and decisions with the doctor
- Encourage him to ask questions
- Talk to him about spiritual or existential questions (Why me? What if I die?)
- Encourage him to share his emotions with you, his siblings, his parents and his doctors, but don’t rush him - respect the fact if he doesn’t want to talk
- Let him have time alone with his doctor
- Encourage him to keep a diary
- Reassure him about the way the family is dealing with his illness
- Allow him to “let it out”, talk about his anger and frustration
- Refer him a to professional if you think it will help him (social worker, psychologist, child life specialist)
- Organize visits from his friends
- Suggest that he share his experience with others teens who are going through the same thing
And above all, regardless of their age, give them plenty of love. 04-02-07 - The Montreal Children's Hospital