Childhood Cancer

Children can be overcome with feelings when they are sick or hurt. At varying times and to varying degrees, children and teens may feel fearful, angry, resentful, powerless, violated, lonely, weird, inferior, incompetent, betrayed. All these feelings, if left unresolved, create stress. Children need to learn ways to deal with these feelings to prevent acting out (by throwing tantrums, for example) or acting in (becoming depressed or withdrawn).

Good communication is the first step toward helping your family cope with the feelings and changes brought about by illness or injury.

Honesty. Above all, children must be able to trust their parents. They can face almost anything when they know their parents will be at their side. Trust requires honesty. For children to feel secure, they must know they can depend on their parents to tell them the truth, be it good news or bad.

I have found that as my children’s understanding of the illness deepens, they come back with more questions, needing more detailed answers. So, my motto is, be honest but don’t scare them. If you say everything is okay but you are crying, they know something is wrong, and that they can’t trust you to tell the truth.

Listening. Time is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. Children need you to really focus on what they are saying. Listen to their words and the feelings behind them, and stop to think before responding.

Touching. Hospitalized children need lots of back rubs and hugs. Children, sick or well, need frequent contact with parents. Be sure your kids know you have an unlimited supply of hugs.

When my daughter was seven, three years after her treatment ended, I realized how important it is to keep listening. She was complaining about a hangnail so I told her I would cut it. She yelled I would hurt her. I asked, “When have I ever hurt you?” She said, “In the hospital.” I sat down and rocked her in my arms, explained what had happened in the hospital during her treatment, why we had to bring her, and how we felt about it. I asked how she felt about being there. We cleared the air that day, and I expect we will need to talk about it many more times. Then she held out her hand so that I could cut her hangnail.

Some parents like to keep a list of reminders about how manage strong feelings when both children and parents are stressed.

• Model the type of behavior you desire. If you talk respectfully and take timeouts when angry, your child will learn to do likewise. If you scream and hit, that is how your child will handle his anger.

• Teach your child to talk about her feelings.

• Distinguish between having feelings (always okay) and acting on feelings in destructive or hurtful ways (not okay).

• Listen to your child with understanding and empathy.

• Be honest and admit your mistakes.

• Help your child examine why he is behaving as he is.

• Have clear rules and consequences.

• Discuss acceptable outlets for anger.

• Give frequent reassurances of your love.

• Provide lots of hugs and physical affection.

• Compliment your child for good behavior.

• Recognize that disturbing behaviors can result from stress, pain, and drugs.

• Remember that with lots of structure, love, and time, problems will become more manageable.