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Children coping with a parent's cancer

This page is about helping children to cope when a parent has a cancer that can't be cured.  There is information below about

 

Talking to young people about cancer

There is no one correct way to talk to children and teenagers about cancer and the possibility that a parent might die. But it is helpful to keep in mind that children have a right to expect honest answers to their questions. They are likely to become more anxious if they feel that they are not being told the truth. It is important to tell the truth, but keep it simple, even if they don't seem to understand it all at the time. 

Let the children be involved as far as they are comfortable. There are tips and suggestions at the end of this page. We also have information about supporting children when a close relative is dying.

Talking to children about cancer can be very difficult and upsetting. Adults sometimes try to protect children by not discussing the situation with them. But even if adults don't tell children openly about what is happening, they will inevitably know when something is seriously wrong. Involving children generally helps them cope better with a parent's illness.

 

Children's stages of understanding death

Children of different ages will cope a parent's illness in slightly different ways because of their different levels of development. Children aged between 8 and 12 have some understanding that a serious illness may lead to death and that this is permanent. You need to be sensitive but straightforward. If you are too subtle, they will miss the point. It may help to understand that children of this age may feel guilty when a parent is seriously ill, as if it is somehow their fault. They may also feel angry with the parent for not being there.

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 or death 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.

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 become anxious, angry, moody, depressed. They may pretend that they are coping very well, but inside may feel very scared and lonely.

 

Tips and suggestions

The following suggestions may help when trying to think of what to do and say to children about a parent's cancer. But remember they are only suggestions and each child will cope differently. You know your children best and it is important that you trust your own instincts.

Do

  • Include them in what is going on and let them help if at all possible
  • Expect changes in their moods but try not to react
  • Be there for them but also let them have some space to think things through
  • Encourage and allow them to say how they are feeling
  • Let them know you won't be upset if they prefer to talk to someone else
  • Let them know that you know this a very hard time for them
  • Show your feelings, don't hide your sadness

Don't

  • Try to protect them from the real situation
  • Tell them how you expect them to react
  • Judge how they react
  • Be afraid to talk to them

Feeling sad is a healthy feeling that most people experience when there has been a loss or disappointment in their life. Sadness is part of healing. It helps you to deal with loss, grief, change or disappointment and then, in time, begin to move on.

 

Further support for young people

One UK website which may be useful for your sons is called riprap. It is designed to offer support to children between the ages 12 and 16 who have a parent affected by cancer. This website has information about how to get support. 

An organisation that may be able to offer you some advice is a charity called Winston's Wish. They offer support to families who have had, or may be about to experience a death. The main aim of the charity is to support children and young people. They also offer advice to parents and have a family helpline on 08452 03 04 05.

The National Cancer Institute of America has produced a booklet called When a parent has cancer - a guide for teens. Your children may find it helpful to read this. As this is American Information, there may be some slight differences in the wording used, when compared to the UK.

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Updated: 31 December 2013