Helping your child

Advice and support to help your children cope with a cancer diagnosis

A childhood cancer diagnosis can have a life-changing impact on children and young adults whose world is suddenly turned upside down and are having to come to terms with a change in routine -from countless appointments, scans, tests and treatments to the emotional stress of everything that comes with a cancer diagnosis. They may feel frightened, stressed, angry or upset, however how they react will also likely be determined by their age, stage of development and personality.

As a parent or caregiver, you play an important role alongside your child’s care team to support them throughout this time. Understanding the different ways your child may react and strategies to support them cope can help make a big difference.

Babies, infants and toddlers (0 to 5 years)

At this age, children may not understand their diagnosis. Often their primary concern is being separated from parents and changes in their routine.

They may:

  • Become fearful and clingy, angry and upset or withdrawn.
  • Express their emotions in a range of different ways, such as crying, shouting or screaming.
  • Be uncooperative during appointments.
  • Have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.
  • Regress in areas such as toilet training and independence.

Some general suggestions that may help you support a very young child within this age group include:

  • Providing physical reassurance such as holding, cuddling, hugging and rocking.
  • Continuing their regular routine as much as possible.

For toddlers, you may like to consider:

  • Teaching them in simple terms about their cancer and treatment.
  • Openly talking with them about how their routine may change.
  • Continuing their regular routine as much as possible.
  • Comforting them through both physical touch and gentle words.
  • Reassuring them that they did not cause the cancer.
  • Encouraging acceptable ways to express their feelings.

School age children (6 to 12 years)

Children at this age will now begin to have a deeper understanding of their diagnosis and treatment. Their reactions to a cancer diagnosis and treatment may include:

  • Requiring a greater level of emotional support.
  • Fear of tests and treatment.
  • Frustration, anger and sadness at their cancer diagnosis and missing out on school or other activities.
  • Missing seeing friends and family.

To support them during this time, some recommendations include:

  • Repeatedly reassuring them that they are not responsible for their cancer.
  • Normalising feelings such as anger, sadness and guilt during this difficult time.
  • Giving them independence to keep feelings and thoughts private if they wish.
  • Explaining their diagnosis and treatment plan, and including them in conversations with their care team where appropriate.
  • Answering questions honestly with support from their care team.
  • Discussing the side effects of treatment, such as changes in appearance, and addressing their concerns. You may also like to consider preparing for changes such as hair loss and making this a fun activity, through letting your child pick out a fun hat, scarf and/or wig.
  • Supporting them to access resources or speak with children their age who also have cancer.
  • Helping them maintain relationships with friends and family if desired.

Young adults (13 to 18 years)

For young adults with growing independence, a cancer diagnosis can be incredibly distressing and overwhelming. While some young adults may push their family away as a coping mechanism, others may rely on family for support more than ever.

Reactions may include:

  • Anger at a loss of independence.
  • Becoming sad and withdrawn.
  • Intense emotional responses.
  • Risk-taking activities.
  • Brushing over and making light of their cancer and treatment.
  • Rebelling against family, teachers or their care team.
  • Feeling embarrassed and upset about changes to their appearance or treatment side effects.

To support young adults during their cancer journey, you may like to consider:

  • Involving them in diagnosis and treatment discussions with their care team as much as possible
  • Supporting them to understand complex information about their cancer, including treatments, side effects, and risks and benefits.
  • Helping them work through their emotions and access external support, such as private sessions with allied health professionals without family present.
  • Connecting them with people their age who have cancer or appropriate resources.
  • Reassuring them about changes in appearance and supporting your child to prepare for side effects.
  • Giving them independence to keep feelings and thoughts private if they wish.
  • Helping them maintain relationships with friends and family if desired.

Support at Icon

At Icon, we are dedicated to providing advanced treatment and compassionate support for children with cancer that encompasses important relationships such as family and friends every step of the way. Please don’t hesitate to talk to your care team at any point during your time with us if you require additional help or advice and we will connect you with the appropriate support.

Remember that it is also important to look after yourself during this time. For information on coping with a cancer diagnosis for parents, click here.

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