Different ages and stages
Helping children to understand your experience with cancer needs sensitivity and a good sense of timing. Children may go through the stages you are going through – disbelief, anger, re-organisation, hope and acceptance. They may have special needs because of their ages. During your illness, their needs may change.
The youngest children fear separation, strangers and being left alone. If you are in hospital, arrange for a familiar person to stay with them. Talk to them – reassure them you are coming home from hospital soon and that you think of them when you are apart. You may like to let them choose one of your favourite possessions to look after while you are away. A scarf, jersey or favourite pillow work well, as they hold your scent and may help to comfort young children. If they come to visit you, suggest they bring a favourite toy with them.
Young children may feel they have magical powers and what they wish for can come true. They may feel guilty that the person who cares for them is ill, or about having bad thoughts about that person. Assure them that nothing they have done or said or thought could have caused your illness.
Children in this age group learn through repetition – you may have to explain many times. This is normal so try not to be frustrated. They are trying to understand your illness and how it will affect them.
Children in this age group have very little understanding of time. Try to explain time by relating it to things they may understand, such as “I’ll be taking medicine until Christmas”. Try to stick to your normal daily routines as much as possible.
Make information visual, such as a chart to count down the days you are having radiation treatment. Make a sign, for example, that shows a happy or tired face so they know how you are feeling.
Ages 6 to 12
Children between 6 and 12 may be very concerned about your health. It is important not to worry them with details that are very complicated but reassure them that you will keep them up-to-date.
For this age group, sticking to your normal routines is very important. It is a very good idea to inform your child’s teacher promptly about your cancer. Their understanding and support may be invaluable if there are any problems.
Let your children guide you as to how much information they want others, such as friends, to know. They may like to involve friends as a support system, or keep school and school friends as normal as possible.
Changes in eating, sleeping, schoolwork, behaviour and friendships may happen. Children, at any age, may start behaving like younger children. This may be their way of coping. With time, this should settle down. If problems continue, talk to a health professional.
Be aware that children may be getting information about cancer from various sources. Not all of it may be relevant to you. It may be helpful to check in with them from time to time to ask if they have any questions or need anything explained.
Source: Cancer Council NSW
For the parent
Children ages 8 to 12 can understand their parent’s cancer diagnosis and will need more detailed information regarding what treatment their parent will be going through. They often deal with feelings of sadness, fear and confusion, and may become very clingy to a sick parent. Children may feel that as long as they are near, the parent will be okay. They can experience intense anxiety over a day at school or a slumber party at a friend’s house. At this age, a child needs to discuss their feelings thoroughly and repeatedly. It may be difficult for a child to understand what they are feeling and parents should help interpret their actions. For example, you could say “I understand that going to school is difficult because you worry something might happen to me but it is important for you to go to school. I promise if anything happens, such as if I need to go to the hospital, I will make sure we call the school and let them know”. When a child’s feelings are validated and talked about, the child will eventually have a greater understanding of his or her feelings.
Teenagers (13 to 18 years)
Talk openly with your teen about resources and support that is available. Many teens access the internet and may find information that is not relevant for you and your cancer. Let them know that there are websites that have been recommended. Reassure them about your plan for treatment and how that will affect them.
Many teenagers have an especially hard time – adolescence is not an easy time in any case. Their thoughts and emotions are sometimes complicated and troublesome. They may find it hard to talk to you or show you how they feel. At times their behaviour may be difficult for everyone to deal with. When they are struggling to be grown up they may feel that it will be seen as childish to show emotions or to ask for help. Not talking may be their way of trying to appear strong for you, or may happen because they are worried that they will be misunderstood. It may help to reassure them that talking about their feelings and worries is a positive way of coping. If they are finding it hard to talk to you, encourage them to talk to someone close who can support them, such as a family/whānau member, friend, school or community counsellor.
Talk to them about how they may be of help. Reassure them that you still need them to be themselves, and to maintain their own interests. Your illness may mean that they are asked to take on more responsibility than they had before. This can be a positive experience if they feel their efforts are helpful and recognised. Difficulties can arise if they feel overburdened with responsibility and don’t have time to do their ‘own thing’. Teenagers need to be included and consulted as adults but will continue to need guidance, support and reassurance.