What If My Child Acts Differently?

If your child still has questions after you’ve explained the cancer treatment, there may be other issues that are causing distress. Talking with a professional counselor could help. Watch your child’s behavior. Acting out, worrying constantly, fighting, or not being able to focus, may point to a need for professional help. Parents usually know how their children normally express distress. Typical behaviors that are much worse may mean your child is troubled.

Sometimes when children have trouble talking about how they feel, a cancer care professional or child care specialist may help them open up about their fears or sadness. Since these experts know how other children have reacted to illness in the family, they may be able to offer a useful way of looking at the problem.

Although most children whose parents have cancer seem able to cope, there are times when it gets to be too much. If a child seems to be having trouble, it may mean a more serious problem than a normal, sad response to cancer. Extra help is needed if a child:

  • Is unable to handle the feelings of sadness
  • Feels sad all the time
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Admits to thinking of suicide or of hurting himself or herself
  • Feels extra irritable
  • Becomes very angry very quickly
  • Has changing grades
  • Withdraws or isolates himself or herself
  • Acts very different than usual
  • Has appetite changes
  • Has low energy
  • Shows less interest in activities
  • Has trouble concentrating
  • Cries a lot
  • Has trouble sleeping

When a child shows 1 or 2 of these symptoms, it may help to offer more support. If the usual ways of handling these problems are not working, or if the problem goes on for more than 1 or 2 weeks, the child may need extra help. (For more serious problems, like if the child is planning to hurt himself or herself, urgent help is needed.)

Talk with the child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or with the social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the parent is being treated. Since these experts know how other children have reacted to illness in the family, they may be able to offer a useful way of looking at the problem. They can evaluate the child and make sure that any needed help is given. They can also suggest books, videos, and children’s support groups that may help. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling. (For more on mental health professionals in cancer care, please call us for a copy of Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Understanding Psychosocial Support Services. Or you can read it on our Web site at www.cancer.org.)

Finally, if one of the child’s parents or main caregivers becomes depressed, the child is more likely to have problems. Sometimes the child’s problem may not look very severe; the child or teen may say very little and hold everything inside. If you or your partner starts to feel overwhelmed or distressed, see a mental health professional to get an idea what kind of help you and your family may need. You can talk with your cancer team to find out where to start. Ask your doctor or nurse, “Who can we talk to if one of us feels overwhelmed or depressed? I am worried about how this will affect the children.” For more information on adult depression, see our document called Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can read it online or call us for a free copy.

Can I expect my children’s lives to go on as before?

As much as you hope it would be possible, it’s not realistic to expect life to be the same as it was before cancer. No matter how you may feel about the treatment, having cancer is still a major crisis. You may feel anxious about what your future holds. Be aware that life may not feel normal again for some time. This does not mean that life will be changed forever in a bad way or that your children’s lives will be ruined. Many people say that having cancer resulted in some good changes for their family. People do learn to live, even thrive, with cancer. The challenge is learning what works best for your family.

It can be hard to figure out how children can be involved in a parent’s cancer without it taking over everyone’s life. One of the best ways to do this is to sit down and talk with each other about how everyone is doing. Make a plan as a family to figure out how to meet the challenge of changes in family routines. Setting up a regular time for family meetings can be a good idea. Let your children call meetings when they need to. Family meetings are a nice reprieve if they involve topics other than cancer, too. Use these meetings as a way to gauge everyone’s feelings. Do some chores need to be reassigned because of school demands? Is there a special event coming up that the family should plan for? Who needs a pat on the back for making an extra effort? What new information do your children need about the treatment?

Try to have back-up plans for any changes to your family routines that would be needed to deal with unexpected events. Making lists of tasks to be done and assigning each of them to a family member will help life run more smoothly. Regular family meetings can help the family solve problems before they become huge and can help relieve tension by airing small concerns. Concrete problem-solving makes everyone feel less hopeless.

Even if you have family meetings, it will still be important to check in with each child on a regular basis. Sometimes there will be issues or feelings that they might not want to bring up in front of brothers and sisters.

Last Medical Review: 08/07/2012
Last Revised: 08/07/2012
Source: American Cancer Society