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For Parents: Helping Your Child Cope When You Have Cancer

It is estimated that one-third of cancer patients are diagnosed at an age when one is old enough to be a parent. Numbers from Camp Kesem, a social service organization, dedicated to children of adult cancer patients share that more than five million children are impacted by a parent’s cancer in the United States. Hence, Camp Kesem established the month of January to bring awareness to this population of children with "Children Impacted by Parent’s Cancer Month".

A parent’s cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and cause immense stress for everyone. Hence, it is vital for children to be involved, and know that they are not alone. Some parents may avoid sharing to protect their children, while research shows that children who aren’t included in conversations experience higher anxiety levels. Below are some key points in helping your child cope when you have cancer to decrease anxiety, emotional isolation, and feelings of hopelessness.

Here are some ways that parents/caregivers can help a child understand and cope with a parental cancer diagnosis:

Find out what the child has noticed or knows already

Children may hear accurate and inaccurate information about cancer through various sources. Find out what they already know or have observed.

Share early and honestly

Ideally, before starting cancer treatment, share the diagnosis and treatment plan. Children are keen and chances are that they already sense something is up. Talking to them early can help your child understand the changes that they will experience and see.

Start with the 5 Cs

  1. Use the word “cancer”. Utilizing the word “cancer” will help children become familiar with the terminology, and this will help minimize confusion, especially when hearing or seeing the word.

  2. Emphasize with children that they did not “cause” the illness

  3. It is not “contagious” or something that a person can catch

  4. It cannot be “controlled” by behaving well

  5. Most importantly, remind children that they “can” still be a kid, have fun, and spend quality time together.

Utilize age-appropriate language

Use simple and age-appropriate language. Oftentimes, what children want vs. what they can cope with varies. The goal is to give enough information that will address their fears and give them a sense of security amid the upcoming changes.

Repeat information

Children may not understand or have context on what cancer is and how it will impact their life. Create check-ins and repeat information as necessary, and know that it does not have to all be addressed in one conversation. Focus on what is happening now.

Maintain their routines as much as possible

Routine gives children a sense of security and predictability during an uncertain time. Explain any necessary changes that may occur ahead of time.

It’s okay to say I don’t know

Children may ask questions that parents don’t have answers to. It’s okay to say, "I don’t know, but I will find out", or "I will let you know once I have more information".

Provide ways to express emotions

Many emotions may arise during cancer diagnosis and treatment, hence helping children understand and express their feelings can help them practice coping tools and create plans to manage difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, etc.

Express emotions in front of children

Model expressing emotions in front of children and ways to cope with the emotion. This also allows children to know that it is okay to talk about and show emotions.

Give children permission to play

Some children may experience feelings of guilt when a parent is unable to play and feel that playing is wrong. Let children know that they can still have fun and carry on with normal daily activities.

Keep a lookout for changes in behavior

Sometimes children may not express feelings in words, but will express them through changes in behaviors, eating and sleeping habits, school performance and etc.

Encourage children to identify supportive people and resources

Sit with children and discuss supportive people and community resources. Connecting children with other children who may also have a parent going through a cancer diagnosis can help them know that they are not alone.


Our team at Hearts Connected is available to help you or your child navigate conversations surrounding supporting children impacted by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Schedule your free consult today to talk directly with one of our child life specialists about how we can support you and your family.

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