Support for children whose parents have cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Support for children whose parents have cancer

I have cancer and my 2 children are finding it very difficult. What kind of support is available for children whose parents have cancer?

We can appreciate that this is a very difficult situation. This page gives information about


Talking to children

Being a parent and having cancer often causes a lot of worry. It can be very difficult to find the right way to support your children. Children of different ages will cope with their parent having cancer in slightly different ways. It may help to know there is no right way to talk to children and teenagers about cancer. Being honest with them is the most important thing.

Talking to children about cancer can be very difficult and upsetting. Adults sometimes try to protect children from such a situation by not discussing it with them. But even if adults don't tell them openly about what is happening, they will inevitably know when something is seriously wrong. 

Involving children and letting them know what is happening generally helps them cope better with a parent's illness. There are booklets with some useful information about what to tell children when an adult has cancer and how children cope. One is called Talking to children when an adult has cancer and the other is called Talking to children about cancer. You can get copies from the Macmillan Cancer Support website.


Stages of children's development

Young children may not be emotionally developed enough to express their real feelings in words. Or, they may not feel comfortable about being in an unfamiliar group situation. Young children often express their feelings through play or their mood rather than in words, and they are often spontaneous in the way they do this. They may not be able to tap into how they are feeling on a specific occasion.

Older children or young teenagers may be more articulate but less forthcoming. Being a teenager can be a time of emotional ups and downs. Teenagers can feel confused and unsure about themselves. This can make the way they deal with a parent’s illness very different from that of a younger child. Their reactions are likely to be more intense than an adult's. It is very important that they have the time to grieve about the illness and be included in what is happening.

The teenage years are also a time to establish independence. This can make it difficult for adolescents to express their feelings and look to other people for support. They may become distant from their family and talk to their friends instead. Or they may keep it all to themselves. They may feel very uncomfortable about expressing their feelings in a group situation. They may become anxious, angry, moody, depressed or pretend that they are coping very well when actually inside they are feeling very scared and lonely. 

The National Cancer Institute in America has a great booklet called When your parent has cancer - a guide for teens, which gives tips and ideas on how to talk about cancer and how it may affect the family. 

Sometimes children of all ages can regress when they are feeling stressed. This means that they can behave as if they were younger.


Websites for children whose parent has cancer

Some websites may be helpful in providing support from other children who have a parent with cancer. If your children are older, there is a UK website that is worth a look. It is called riprap and is designed to offer support to teenagers of all ages who have a parent affected by cancer. This website has information about how to get support.

For younger children there is an American website called kids konnected. This site is for kids aged between 5 and 18 who have a parent with cancer. It is for kids to help each other and has a chat room.

Remember that we must all take care about our children using the web. We have looked at these sites before putting the links up and they seem fine. But we have not checked all the material on these sites and things can change over time. It is your responsibility to check that the material your own children are accessing is suitable for them.


Support for you

There are many cancer support groups for people with cancer. They are a way of people coming together to share their experiences, and to offer and receive support from other group members. It may help you to find out from other parents how they have coped and talked to their children. We do not know of any specifically for younger children, whose parents have cancer. 

If you want to find people to share experiences with on line, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. 

Many people find it helpful to talk to a counsellor to work on the feelings and emotions that come up. You can find information about counselling in our counselling section. It may be useful to contact your local social services. They may provide support and counselling services for you and your children in this situation.

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Updated: 13 November 2012