When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, is going through treatment, or has passed away from cancer, the children and teens in the family may experience a range of emotions that they have never had to deal with before. Because each child responds in his or her own unique way, it is crucial that they have access to information and support that will enable them to better manage the changes in their day-to-day routine and cope with the unfamiliar emotional journey on which they find themselves.

Several factors, such as children’s age, personality, relationship with the cancer patient, and the way that others in their lives are behaving, influence how they will react and cope during this stressful time.

Changes in Behavior

Many children cannot, or will not, verbalize how they feel directly. Often they show their feelings through disruptive behaviors, such as fighting with their siblings or acting out at school. Some children will regress (i.e., act younger than their age), such as becoming overly clingy to their parents or suddenly wetting the bed at night. They may act more impulsively than before. Teens may become more easily angered, or may seem very distant or withdrawn from the family.

Children and teens who have problems paying attention in school may have even more trouble now than before, and those who have never had difficulty in school may suddenly be falling behind or failing their classes. Staying focused on schoolwork and other daily activities can become overwhelmingly difficult when the loved one is undergoing cancer treatments, or when they are grieving the loss of someone close.

How to Help

It is important to recognize if your child or teen exhibits troubling behaviors such as the ones mentioned above or any others that may indicate distress. You can then intervene, helping to ease the distress and providing healthier coping strategies.


Although parents may want to protect their children from distressing feelings, it is always best to talk openly with them. When a loved one has cancer, even very young children can sense that something is wrong. Avoiding the topic can cause them more intense feelings of confusion and fear. Thus, it is important to provide them information in the early stages. Doing so in an age-appropriate way will help them understand the situation without overwhelming them.

When speaking with children, it is best to focus on things that will affect them directly, such as changes to their schedules or changes to the loved one’s appearance, as these changes can be more frightening if unexpected. Teens may need more information and even more time to work though their feelings. So while it’s important not to overwhelm them, it is also best to provide accurate information in addition to reassurance that the family will work together to support one another and cope with the challenges ahead.

Support Groups and Counseling

Often, families benefit from outside support such as support groups held at local health care facilities and non-profit organizations and/or one-on-one counseling with a mental health professional. For example, Gilda’s Desert Cities offers support groups led by licensed professionals. Special groups for children, teens and adults all meet at the same time on Thursday evenings. They are preceded by a dinner served to everyone together, allowing family members to build and maintain social connections with others facing similar challenges. The children’s group (ages 5-12) gives young children and pre-teens healthy ways to express their emotions through art and play. The teen group (ages 13-17) provides a safe space to relax, spend time with other teens, and discuss all aspects of having cancer in the family.

For some children and teens, individual and/or family counseling may greatly reduce stressors and help guide them through this difficult experience. To find referrals to counseling services, it may be helpful to contact your child’s school or insurance plan.

Online and Virtual Resources

www.cancersupportcommunity.org has a variety of reading materials that can assist you in talking with children or teens about cancer in the family. Among the website’s other helpful resources are an online forum for teens as well as a podcast library with several episodes aimed at children.

Anyone affected by cancer can also find support over the phone through the Cancer Support Helpline. Call (888) 793.9355 anytime Monday – Friday from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM (ET) to talk with a Helpline counselor.

April Hanig, MFTI, is program director at Gilda’s Desert Cities, an affiliate of the Cancer Support Community. She can be reached at (760)770.5678 or [email protected]. For more information visit www.gildasclubdesertcities.org.

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