9 TIPS FOR PARENTS WITH CANCER
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Learn how to help your children cope with your diagnosis.
This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something I may earn a commission at no cost to you. Thank you for helping support my mission of helping those diagnosed with cancer.
Children function best when all of their basic needs are met, they feel loved, and they are in a stable environment. Those three things equal a happy thriving child. What but if their once stable home becomes a home of discord, fear, or uncertainty? A cancer diagnosis is sure to cause at least some of those, if not all. You can try to hide and shield your child, but let me tell you, they are little radar detectors. They know when something is off, no matter how old they are.
I'm here to share how to help stabilize your child's life during a very unstable time.
The Honest & Age Appropriate Talk
Your child either knows something is off or if they are old enough, they are most likely afraid you are going to die (It's hard to read that, but it's true that it's crossed their minds). Either case, you need to have an honest age appropriate conversation with them about your diagnosis. Whether it's a family sit down where teenagers are told all the key details or if it's explaining to your 5 year old that you're sick and will be going to the doctor more often, open conversations are key. Prepare them for any changes that may take place over the next coming months. Will they be spending some time with Grandma? Explain that you will need some extra rest to help your body get healthy. Are you going to lose your hair? Explain that the medicine makes your hair fall out but will make you better in the end. Encourage them to ask questions, reassure them, bring their fears to light so that you can address them. Help them through the conversation with empathy and end it with the reassurance that they can come to you and ask any questions at any time.
Your child loves you and needs to know that they are still important to you regardless of what is going on. The best way to show them that is not with gifts, but with quality time spent with them. Family time as a whole will show them that the family is still a working unit. One on one time will reassure them that they are still loved and valued. The moments you share together is what they will remember, those are the memories they will cherish.
If it's hard to find the time, consider asking for help. Here's a post on how people can help you.
Keep Those Boundaries
Don't stand on the toilet, wash your hands before dinner, be respectful...all of those rules you had before cancer? Keep them. It's okay to add a few more during treatment too. You're still their parent and they are still children who need parenting. I understand that it might be easy to let them do whatever they want out of sheer exhaustion, if that's the case please see the section "ask for help" below to help lessen your load. Or maybe you think being lenient will make them love you more or remember you as a loving parent. NOT the case. Children crave structure and consistency. They will respect you more and feel safer with you if they know your boundaries and are made to follow those rules. No matter the age.
Are you fighting tantrum battles? Here's a post you'll want to read.
Off of that last point, we also need to talk about showing your child and yourself some grace when needed. No one handles cancer well. No one. Including you or your family.
Yes, keep the boundaries, but also be understanding that they may be acting differently out of fear, stress, or worry. If that's the case, it's time to teach coping mechanisms (see section below). But, remember, you're not expected to be perfect and neither are your children. Everyone in the family is suddenly thrown into a new stressful scary world with one single diagnosis. There will be breakdowns, there will be tears, there will be fights. And that's normal. Give yourself and your family some slack, things will eventually level out.
Children are creatures of habit and let's face it, change can be scary. A cancer diagnosis can flare a sense of instability in anyone, especially a child. That's why it's best to try to keep things as normal as possible in the home. Yes, some things will inevitably change and for those, please keep reading. But for the things that you can keep the same, do so.
Do you go out for ice cream every Thursday night? Keep going. If you get to where you're unable to get out much due to treatment side effects, bring the ice cream party home by making Sundays in the kitchen. Is your child used to watching cartoons with you on Saturday mornings? Keep the routine. Just knowing and seeing that not every single thing in their life is being turned upside down will give them a sense of stability and safety.
And for the things that will inevitably change regardless of what you do? I suggest implementing small incremental changes to lead up to the "new normal." For example, if you found out you will be receiving a chemotherapy that will cause your hair to fall out, cut it. Then cut it shorter. Then cut it even shorter. Doctors recommend this for cancer patients to help adjust. Imagine how beneficial it will be for your child as well.
Remember that key rule on an airplane? Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on anyone else. Why? You have to save yourself in order to be able to save other people. Same rule applies here. The situation you are in is literately life or death. You must take care of yourself in order to be alive to parent to your children. This may mean having a babysitter a couple of times a week or partaking in counseling. Whatever the case is, take the time and put out the effort to think of yourself.
Have A Backup Plan
I strongly suggest having someone on stand by to watch your child in case of need. In addition to the standard appointments and treatments, you need to allow yourself permission to have someone watch your child if you're having one of "those days". There will be days when it's harder to get out of bed, you feel worse, or you simply need a mental and emotional break. Allow yourself this, and do it regularly.
But again, open the door slowly if they are being cared for in an unknown setting. Here's a helpful post to ease into that process to avoid throwing your child into a panic.
In order to cope with changes in life, a child must understand emotions. The more they are able to identify emotions, their causes, and ways to handle them, the more equipped they will be to self soothe. Children's books are wonderful resources for this purpose. They will help your child recognize, relate to, and name feelings. They also serve as great conversation starters to get chatting about things that you might not have even realized needed addressed.
In addition to literature, any coping mechanisms that you are planning to incorporate for yourself, imagine how to adapt and apply that to your child as well. Are you going to be doing some Yoga to help relieve stress? Break that down into kiddo terms. Breathing, calming, self reflection are just a few things that come to my mind that can also be taught to children. For example, practice how to pause, count, and take deep breaths when feelings start to go into overwhelm (breathing). Give them an hourglass to sit and watch when upset (calming). After the hourglass is done, let them talk to you about what upset them. Guide them through why it upset them and how to handle it differently next time (self reflection).
There are also great video and music resources to help with calming exercises that you can find by simply googling. Download some to your phone and have on hand whenever you notice your child might need to calm down. An important tip here: Join them, make them feel as though what they are doing is valuable and it will help it stick.
When a child doesn't know how to handle their emotions they tend to come out in outbursts known as tantrums. Here's a post all about how to handle and use the tantrums as teaching lessons on coping mechanisms.
Staying Intuitive and Open
Chances are, regardless of your best efforts, there will be times where your child has a break down or two...or more. It's normal for a child under stress to act out as form of release. However, it is also a cry for help about a larger issue. I think we can all assume what the larger issue is here, so let's talk about what to do when all else fails.
You've been patient, understanding, prepping, and teaching coping mechanisms, yet your child is still struggling. You know your child best and can pin point the red flags better than anyone yet you feel what you're doing still isn't enough. This is when it's time to outsource additional help. Here's a list to look into:
Counseling for children from your local mental health center is probably the most efficient method. They know children's emotions in and out. They will not only be able to guide your child, but give you additional pointers as well.
My cancer center offered so many wonderful resources for not only me, the cancer patient, but for my family as well. Try consulting with your team to see if they have any suggested avenues of help.
School counselors are also helpful with sessions and local referrals.
Art therapy lessons can do wonders. You would be surprised at what is revealed through our subconscious via the creative arts. I myself found much healing through this method. There are classes that are specifically for children.
Stay intuitive, listen to your child, and actually hear what they are trying to say through their silence or tantrums to know how to best help them. Stay open to any and all of the above avenues of help for your child, don't discount them as worthless or futile. Your child is too young to understand how exactly they are being affected by your diagnosis, they just know something is wrong and act accordingly. It's your job to provide the resources to help them navigate this trying time.
Remember: The feeling that you and your child are both struggling is normal. You are not alone. It's more than okay to ask for help...it's actually highly suggested.
PIN this post for later!