Helping your child cope

Your child’s life will be completely changed by cancer and its treatment. There will be times when your child feels too sick or too uncomfortable to do the “normal” things they did before they got sick. There will be changes to routine, changes in feelings and emotions and physical changes to how they look. They may have long stays in the hospital, not be able to go to school and may not see friends. But there are many things you can do to help your child cope, and to continue to learn and grow and enjoy life, during treatment.

Help to prepare your child

By learning about tests and treatment and possible side effects, you can prepare your child for what to expect. It is always important to remember that each child’s treatment can be very different. Another child’s experience may be different from your child’s, but being prepared can help with coping.

Have them eat and play as well as they can

Try to eat healthy food. Don’t be too hard on yourself on this one – eating well during treatment is hard even for adults. But it will be easier for your child to get through treatment and to recover after if they eat well.

Cancer and its treatment is very tiring, even for children. Rest is important, but sometimes it’s good to encourage activity. Being inactive for long periods of time can lead to feeling even more tired or other problems such as muscle weakness. Active play can also make your child feel a bit happier, so find ways to move when you can. Talk to your healthcare team about which activities are OK. When your child is not feeling well, try simple games like charades or Simon Says or take short walks. Moving and stretching will help you both feel better. Even chores such as folding laundry can help.

Set clear expectations about behaviour

Even when sick, children need consistency, structure and guidance from adults who are in charge. Sometimes parents let their children behave differently when they are sick because they feel sorry for them. But if you take this too far, this change sends a message that the child can do whatever they want. This can cause problems later. Your child may even think that they are being allowed to do whatever they want because they won’t get better. Also, if you have other children, they might feel angry and upset if you let the child with cancer behave differently.

Encourage your child to be independent

Let them feed and dress themselves and brush their teeth. Let them make decisions when possible – what colour pajamas to wear, what healthy snack to eat, what game to play. Give your child jobs or chores to do. If they are feeling well, get them to put away toys, fold clothes or set the table. Let your child feel more in control of what is happening to them by allowing them to make decisions when possible.

Encourage your child to share their feelings

Children of all ages need to know that it’s OK to feel mad or sad sometimes. Sometimes sharing your own feelings can be helpful. Provide safe ways to express anger and other feelings. Use things like playdough or building blocks, talking, physical activities, writing and music or offer art activities like crafts, painting and drawing. Ask about expressive art, music and play programs at the hospital. Many children enjoy them, and these activities can also help you talk about feelings. Your child may even be able to try something new.

Support learning

At home, when possible, keep up with lessons, hobbies and other activities. If spending time in hospital, ask to see the teacher at the hospital. They can help your child keep up with school work.

Help them stay in touch with friends

Encourage your child to connect with friends through letters, email, phone calls, texts, online video chats and social media. Find opportunities for your child to play with other children when feeling well enough. Let brothers, sisters and friends visit if your child is in hospital.

Make time to do something fun

Laughter can be very good for reducing stress. Playing a fun game, watching a favourite show or movie or listening to music can help your child to relax.

Expert review and references

  • Effects on family when your child has cancer. Cancerbackup. Cancerbackup: Children's Cancers. London, UK: Cancerbackup; 2005.
  • Houtzager, B.A., Grootenhuis, M.A., Hoekstra-Weebers, J.E.H.M., et al . One month after diagnosis: quality of life, coping and previous functioning in siblings of children with cancer. Child: Care, Health & Development. Oxford, England: Blackwell Scientific Publications; 2005.
  • Medical University of South Carolina. MUSC Children's Hospital: Health Library: Oncology - Coping with the Diagnosis. Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina; 2006.
  • National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. CureSearch: Newly Diagnosed - Impact on the Family. Bethesda, MD: 2004.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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