When a parent has cancer: Helping teens and kids cope

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parent with cancer CW.JPGBy Laura Nathan-Garner

A parent's cancer diagnosis can turn a child's world upside down, no matter how young or old the child is.

But coping with a parent's cancer diagnosis can be especially difficult for teens, tweens and even younger children.

Below our social work counselors April Greene and Wendy Griffith answer questions about parenting through cancer and helping kids and teens cope with a parent's cancer diagnosis.

What's the best way to talk to kids about cancer?

No matter what your prognosis is, it's essential to talk openly and honestly with kids. If you're telling your kids for the first time, try to have this conversation in a private space where you can focus on the discussion and be close enough to physically console your kids if needed.

Children tend to think in very concrete terms and like to know what's going on and what to expect. If they ask something that you don't know the answer to, it's okay to tell them that you don't know and that you will work on finding the answer. The most important thing is to communicate openly, honestly and frequently.

Should I use the word cancer?

Even with really young kids, it's important to use the word cancer and explain to them what that means.

Keep in mind that kids often think that cancer equals death. They may not be talking about it or asking about it, but they are almost certainly worried about it. So it's crucial to be honest and open with them and address that fear.

We recommend using the 5 C's when talking to kids about cancer:
  • Say that it's cancer.
  • Tell your kids, "You didn't cause it. You can't catch it. You can't control it." 
  • Also, tell your kids that you can still spend quality time together, participate in care, still be a kid, have fun, etc.
Any tips for talking to preteens and teens? 

The same basic strategy works, but teens and preteens usually want more information and will probably ask more detailed questions.

Since they are able to have a better understanding of what's going on, it's okay to let them guide the conversation.

What if my teen doesn't want to talk?

If your teen doesn't want to talk or seems withdrawn, don't assume that they don't care or aren't interested. They're probably internalizing their feelings and may just need some more time to process. They may also prefer talking about their thoughts and feelings to friends. 

Some teens may start to engage in risky behaviors like sex, drugs, smoking or alcohol after a parent's cancer diagnosis. This is typically the age when children begin to engage in this type of behavior anyway, so it's very important to monitor these behaviors as teens can be at a heightened risk during this time. If you notice that these behaviors are becoming harmful or habitual, it may be necessary to seek help.

This is also why communication is so important. Verbal and non-verbal cues can be very helpful and will tell you a lot about your teen's coping. Make sure your teen knows that you're still the parent and that you love him or her. Also make sure as best you can that you understand each other's needs.

How can parents help children cope with a parent's diagnosis?

Stick to routines when possible. Get a friend to take your kids to sports practices or ask someone to bring dinner if needed. It's important to let kids be kids and to maintain normal parent/child roles and responsibilities as much as possible.

Also, if your child likes to express themselves through writing, encourage them to keep a journal. This can help them work through problems and express their feelings privately. And, although it might be tempting, it's essential that you don't look through the journal. Let them have a safe, private place to process things. 

If a journal isn't a good fit for your child, there are many other ways to help them cope with their emotions. 

What do teens want most when a parent is sick? 

Teens just want to be normal, but at the same time they want to help their parent and want their parent to get well.

It's important to help teens balance their social life and family life. Teens usually struggle with guilt - they feel guilty about not being with the sick parent when they're with their friends, and they feel guilty about not being with friends when they're with their sick parent.

Can you recommend resources to help kids and teens cope with a parent's cancer diagnosis?

Here at MD Anderson we offer a support group for kids called CLIMB; we also have a Teen CLIMB group. They group is free for families. To learn more about the group or about talking to children about cancer, speak with your social work counselor or call 713-792-6195.

Also, the National Cancer Institute's When Your Parent Has Cancer is a great guide for teens whose parents have cancer.

Talking to your child about cancer
How to talk to a child about a loved one's death

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