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MOMS TALK: Kids Coping with Cancer

Too often, even in our small community, kids have to deal with one of the toughest emotional events of a lifetime--the terminal illness of a parent

As with any issue involving our kids, our heads and hearts may have different ideas about how to handle tough issues. How can we best support the kids in a comprehensive treatment plan?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) provides suggestions for answering the question that parents in this situation fear the most: "Are you going to die?" In cases where death is not imminent, the Academy recommends that parents tell their kids that this disease does kill people, but with the doctor's help, they are trying to stay as healthy and live as long as possible. Where death is potentially weeks away, the Academy suggests telling kids, "Even with trying my hardest and getting the best care, my cancer is getting worse. Still, I plan to live every day."

Kids have an amazing capacity to maintain their regular routines, which is relieving to parents. But it is also recommended that the healthy relatives spend as much time as possible with these kids, making it clear that they can be free to share their emotions. Where kids do not express their emotions during the illness or after a death, they are at higher risk for long-term emotional problems.

The AACAP website has these suggestions for supporting kids in this tough situation: 

Guiding Principles For Helping Children with an Ill Parent 

  1. Express interest about the child's daily activities.
  2. Maintain daily routines as much as possible.
  3. Use key support people to help the child and the family.
  4. Carve out protected family time, such as putting on the answering machine during dinner or having a special time in the evening.
  5. Give medical updates, because overhearing bad news is the worst way to hear it.
  6. Give factual, age-appropriate responses to questions about the illness. This will avoid confusion, worry in young children, and leave older children feeling confident that they are included. Ask children to share what they hear about the illness. "Don't worry alone."
  7. Welcome all questions warmly. Ask the child to elaborate on the question being asked.
    • Try to tease out the "real" question being asked.
    • Answers do not need to be immediate. Take time to think out an answer.
    • Do not force a reluctant child to share more than feels bearable.
  8. Facilitate all forms of communication, such as phone calls, notes, and drawings.
  9. Prepare children for visits to the hospital or funeral home. Describe what the child will see before entering the room and what emotions they may encounter. 
    • Let the child determine the length of the visit.
    • Bring a familiar adult who can leave when the child is ready to leave.

We live in a tremendous community where our "village" routinely rises up to help families in need. Dont' be afraid to ask for help, and say "yes" to help. Those who care about you benefit too by contributing something constructive.

For more information, go to AACAP.org.

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