Parenting can be difficult. But when a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, a whole new array of parenting challenges can arise.
Children face unique issues during cancer treatment, as they often receive intense treatments with harsh side effects. If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, here are some ways to help them cope:
1. Talk to them
Tell your child about their diagnosis as soon as possible. Stay calm and try to be gentle, open and honest. However, you don’t need to discuss everything at once. How much you share depends on your child’s age and ability to understand. Younger children may need repeated explanations. Help them know what to expect by using words and ideas that they can understand.
Treating a child differently because they have cancer can make them feel insecure, and they want to feel like every other child.”
Most important, she added: “When a child expresses a concern or fear, ask them questions to learn more about their concerns and open up a conversation. Closing the conversation with a quick ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘Everything will be OK,’ can leave a child feeling isolated and unheard.”
2. Provide comfort and control
Comfort your child when they are upset or fearful. Let them know they are not responsible for their cancer, and that feelings of sadness, anger, fear and guilt are normal. Teach acceptable expressions of angry feelings such as writing and drawing. Ask questions to make sure they understand what is happening. Offer them choices whenever possible, even if it is just choosing a sticker or a flavor of medicine.
Try to maintain as normal a schedule as possible for feeding, sleeping, visits with friends and even discipline.
And find ways to distract or entertain your child, such as through physical activity, playing video games or watching movies. Integrative medicine practices such as muscle relaxation or guided imagery may also help.
3. Help them adjust to physical changes
If treatment will cause their hair to fall out, let your child pick out a fun cap, scarf and/or wig ahead of time. Many children like to play with coloring their hair or cutting it in unusual shapes.
Shopping for new outfits may also help lift their spirits.
Some treatments may cause weight loss, while others may cause weight gain. A dietician can help you determine the best approach for ensuring that your child receives appropriate nutrition.
Some general tips include:
Try smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.
Try changing the time, place and surroundings for meals.
Let your child help with shopping and preparing meals.
Offer high-calorie, high-protein meals and snacks.
Do not force your child to eat.
Folbrecht reinforced the importance of helping your child find a way to deal with people who stare or ask personal questions. “Look the child in the eyes, not at their head or scars,” she said. “Take cues from the child if they want to talk about hair loss, scars or treatment. Children are very sensitive to staring and don’t want to feel different.”
4. Support their friendships
Your child’s friendships are likely to be tested following the cancer diagnosis. Some friends may feel uncomfortable reaching out because they don’t know what to say or how to help. Encourage your child to maintain contact with their friends through texts, emails, video chats, phone calls and/or social media sites. Your child may also make new friends through this experience. Allow their friends to visit as appropriate when your child is feeling up to it.
Also, “Don’t forget about their siblings,” said Folbrecht. “Siblings often feel left out and undervalued, feelings that can last long beyond treatment. Involving siblings by bringing them to appointments or keeping them up-to-date on treatment can help them feel important and included.”
5. Keep on track developmentally
Look for ways to boost your child’s spirits while receiving surgery and/or treatment in the hospital. Load up on interesting books, board games, puzzles, music, and arts and crafts supplies and kits that can help occupy their time.
However, “Watch it with too many gifts,” Folbrecht warned. “While children love gifts, it can become too much and overwhelm the parents and family. If you want to give a gift, pick one that will provide age-appropriate stimulation while in the hospital or waiting to see the doctor.”
Consult with your child’s teacher(s) to determine the schoolwork that they will miss. It may be possible for your child to do some work during their hospital stay. Some hospitals have education coordinators who can provide education-related resources and assistance.
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