When your children find out that you have been diagnosed with
cancer, they will probably react in many different ways. Maybe your
7-year-old hugs you one moment, and ignores you the next.
Perhaps your 6th grader moves between thinking you are going to die
before his next birthday, to forgetting that you are even sick.
Maybe your teenage daughter alternates between feeling very sad
and acting angry. Maybe they have trouble sleeping, and can't seem
to concentrate in school.
All these actions, thoughts, and feelings are normal. No matter
how your kids respond, you might find yourself worrying that your
illness is placing too much of a burden on them. How can you tell
when your concerns are justified?
Children naturally worry about
their parents and themselves when a parent is ill. What behaviors,
thoughts, or feelings may suggest that your son or daughter is
really struggling to cope with your illness, and may need some
You know your own children, and are in the best position to
determine if their responses are in character with their
personalities and normal coping styles. So try to pay attention to
your own instincts concerning your children's stress level, even
when their reactions don't match what you or others might
But maybe you're just not sure if your kids' responses are
within the range of normal, or if they are trying to let you know
that they need additional support. The following list is offered to
help you recognize when your children may generally be going
through a particularly tough stretch. Of course, children of
various ages and at different points of development may react in
different ways and degrees. Note that these signs can come in the
form of behaviors and thoughts as well as feelings, although these
categories tend to overlap.
When you look for signs of stress, try to pay attention to how
your kids act throughout the day. The following behaviors may
indicate that your child is experiencing more worry or anxiety than
he or she can manage.
Remember, however, that many children will show some of these
signs, even when life is relatively calm. Pay attention to how long
your child continues to have these behaviors. If they do not
disappear within several days or a few weeks, or if they seem to
indicate that your child is overwhelmed, he or she needs extra
High levels of stress can affect both the ways your children
think as well as what they think about. If your child shows any of
the following signs, he or she needs some additional help:
You may be able to detect signs of stress through the ways in
which your children feel about the future, interact with others, or
handle daily tasks of living. The following list describes some
possible signs of emotional stress:
As you review this list, remember that no single distressing
feeling, thought, or behavior is proof that your child is in
A good rule of thumb: if, over an extended period
of time, you notice your child consistently acts differently
than he or she would have in the past, you may have cause for
concern. In these situations, do not worry alone. Talk
with your partner, your child's teacher or pediatrician, or other
close support, and consider asking for outside help.
For most people, it can be
difficult to admit that someone in the family needs help from a
social worker, school counselor, or psychologist. After all, you
are the parent, and want to be able to comfort and support your son
or daughter. But sometimes children are afraid to burden their
parents with their problems, especially if the parent is ill. In
this situation, kids might find it easier to confide in a neutral
outsider who can focus on their concerns and questions.
Sometimes you may need help with your own stress and the
challenges of parenting, too. By talking with a social worker,
psychologist, or other supportive person, you may get a clearer
sense of what is going on and how you can be the most effective
parent possible during this difficult time. Obtaining help
for your family is not a failure: it is a concrete sign of your
love and commitment.
If you decide to seek professional help, consider telling your
children, who may then have an easier time accepting their own need
to talk to someone outside the family. You may want to
stress that this is an unusual event for all of you, and that it is
good to talk to people who have helped others to get through
similar difficult times.
Kids also often benefit from learning that they are not the only
ones living with illness in the family. Consider looking for
support groups for children whose parents have cancer, and then
talk to your sons and daughters about participating. Simply knowing
that others face the same challenge can be very comforting to
So if you are worried about any of your children, talk to your
healthcare provider, a social worker, or your child's pediatrician.
Share your observations, specify your concerns, and, if you can,
identify what you think your child needs. Try to ask for help with
figuring out what to do, and, if necessary, finding someone to help
you do it.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 | Call us toll-free:
(866) 408-DFCI (3324)