Parents and Cancer: Helping Children and Teens Cope
By Karen Tripp MS LMFT
Cancer is not easy for anyone to understand and yet children and teens have an additional difficulty due to the way they think. People do not learn abstract thinking until 12-15 years old or later. (1) What does this really mean? It means that without abstract thinking younger people think everything is black or white, good or bad. We see a bright, articulate young person and believe they think like an adult when really they see situations as two sided instead of multi-faceted. A rule is fair or unfair; a person is a best friend or an enemy. They need to fit things into simple black and white categories. Unfortunately, cancer does not fit neatly into any “box” leaving room for misunderstandings that can negatively impact a parent/child relationship.
A child’s lack of questions is not necessarily evidence of a lack of concerns. It is not only what children are saying that’s important, but what they actually understand. It’s good to take the time to wonder “What’s going on in their head?” So here are three common misunderstandings cancer families face:
Handling Questions That Have No Answers
MISUNDERSTANDING: A father is diagnosed with leukemia. The son wonders how his father got cancer. Is it contagious? Will he catch it? Is it from something the parent did or didn’t do? Will someone else they love be diagnosed with cancer too? For most cancers there is no easy explanation so too often families avoid the question leaving children with unspoken fears.
SOLUTION: It’s OK for a parent to not know the answer to everything. So acknowledge what you don’t know and talk about what you do know about the cancer cells in your body. Be sure and discuss the way treatment will work against the cancer cell. When topics are avoided, those topics can become secrets. Secrets leave the impression that there is a reason for a child to feel fear or even shame. Privacy is good; secrecy is not.
Getting Sicker to Get Better
MISUNDERSTANDING: A mother is diagnosed with breast cancer from a routine mammogram. On the day the child was told of the diagnosis the mom appeared perfectly healthy. Then as treatment progressed, the mom became sicker. The child begins to wonder “Why are you telling me you are getting better when I can see that you are getting worse?” This confusion can bring up feelings of distrust, isolation and frustration. Explaining “I have to get sick to get better.” is a very abstract and difficult concept for a young person to understand.
SOLUTION: Too often parents try to relieve a child’s distress by only providing more information. Parents often think “If I could just get them to understand they would be less stressed.” Although this tactic might work in a workplace, to a child the key is reassurance. Information is good but reassurance is healing. Acknowledge what their eyes are telling them. “Yes, I am sicker than I was last month.” Give them information. “Remember how happy we were when the last scan said the tumor is shrinking? That’s still true.” Or “This medicine has helped lots of people get rid of their cancer.” And then reassure them about what has not changed. “I may be tired but I still love you and am here for you.”
Tension Becomes Frustration Becomes Guilt
MISUNDERSTANDING: Dad is in lung cancer treatment. Daughter returns from school and leaves backpack on the kitchen floor like she has many times before. Mom, instead of asking daughter to take backpack to room, accuses daughter of being inconsiderate of her father. Daughter wonders “Did I do something really bad?” Is mom’s unhappiness my fault? Is dad sick because of my insensitivity?” Although it makes no sense, many times children blame themselves so they can make sense out of a senseless situation.
SOLUTION: Repeatedly tell your children/teenager that they are not part of the problems that come with cancer; but their love is part of the solution. At Cancer-Companions we believe that cancer does not get to be the most important thing in your life. It’s the most important things in your life that help you cope with cancer.
To learn more about the impact of a parent’s cancer on a child, teen or young adult join the FREE web seminar Parents and Cancer: Finding Stability for Children, Teens and Young Adults. Go to www.cancer-companions.org to register.
Cancer Companions are caring people who provide scripture based emotional support to cancer family members through Christian cancer support groups or one to one peer counseling.
1. Abstract thinking, http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/abstract+thinking Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.