The ABCs of Helping Children Cope when Someone They Love has Cancer


A-     Allow children to express their emotions. If children never see you express emotion they may feel they shouldn’t show emotion either. Let them know it is okay to admit fear and sadness. If emotions are all bottled they are at risk for coming out uncontrollably and when least expected.

B-     Be present. Turn off electronics and be emotionally and physically available. A couple of attentive minutes can go a long way.

C-     Creativity. Children can often express their feelings through drawing or other artistic modalities. Depending on the age, ask the child to draw a picture representing how he/she is feeling or they could write a letter to cancer.

D-     Deliver information in an age appropriate way. A five-year old will need information differently than a 10 or 17-year old.

E-     Encourage children to be children. Sometimes children try to parent or take on extra responsibilities. Let them know it is okay to play too.

F-      Follow through with ongoing communication. Let the children know you will tell them of any changes (good and not so good). Children will come to their own conclusions if they feel they are not hearing the information from you.

G-     Give children specific helping-tasks to help empower them to be involved in helping you get well.

H-     Honesty. Tell children what you know in a way they can understand. Children need to know you are being truthful now so they can count on you to be truthful throughout your treatments and on into survivorship.

I-       Intuition. If you feel something is going on with a child—trust your senses.

J-       Joy. Look for reasons to experience joy with the children. Seek, find, celebrate.

K-     Keep it simple—enough said.

L-      Listen and watch for clues. Children will often talk in code when they are afraid of saying something that might disappoint or sadden an adult.

M-   Maintain consistency. Remember, cancer is not reason for letting discipline and rules slip. Consistency helps provide a sense of security.

N-    Normalcy in routines is important. If you are unable, recruit friends or neighbors to take the child to lessons or other scheduled activities.

O-    Only offer as much information as a child wants to know at any one time. Too much may become overwhelming.

P-     Positive. Do your best to maintain a positive attitude. Children watch the adults for cues on how to interpret a situation.

Q-    Quality time spent with a child is never wasted. Never.

R-     Refuel—take a nap and invite the child to join in.

S-      Slow down. Notice the sunset and point it out to the child.

T-     Touch is an important way to show caring. Children might be afraid that cancer is contagious so let them know they won’t catch cancer by touching you.

U-    Understand there may be different behaviors you have not seen before. Act instead of react and ask the child to explain what he/she is feeling.

V-     Voice. Give the child a voice and listen attentively. Ask open-ended questions to prompt conversation.

W-   Watch for changes in behaviors such as tantrums or withdrawal.

X-     Exercise. Invite the child to go for a walk. Walking and talking are good for the soul.

Y-     Your health and healing are important. Nurture yourself first so you will have reserve for the child.

   Zero in on support groups that can assist both you and the child cope and adjust with the changes cancer brings. Talking with others can help you develop additional solutions to helping children cope when someone they love has cancer