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Cancer diagnosis: how might my child react

7 min - Read

No matter what age a child is, a cancer diagnosis will have a big effect on them.  A child’s age, level of development and personality will determine many of their reactions. However, most children will feel a mix of being anxious, afraid, angry or upset at some stage during their illness.

For most children with cancer, their life changes dramatically. Going through tests, doctor’s appointments and treatment will become part of their daily life. They will have a lot to cope with and it is important they have people close by they can trust and feel loved by at all times.

Although children can show a surprising natural resilience during a serious illness, experts recognise that understanding a child's specific needs, maintaining normal routines, and providing boundaries, comfort and love, are very important to help support this resilience.

For most children their parent/s will be the main source of support during their illness. Children know a parent will be more aware than anyone else about how they cope in unfamiliar situations, what makes them fearful, sad, happy and how to get them to relax during extra stressful moments.

Below we outline some common reactions of children with cancer, by age. Remember though, every child is unique and will react and cope in their own way.

Babies and infants (0-5 years)

Children this young worry about the “here and now”. Their main concern will be about being away from parents. They may also be confused and upset about not being able to play and have as much fun as usual.

Very young children and babies may:

  • Become very fearful of being separated from their parents – cling more than usual.
  • Cry, yell, scream and shout more than usual.
  • Become uncooperative during tests and treatment.
  • Become angry and upset because their usual daily routine of eating, play and intimacy with parents has been changed.
  • Have changes to their sleeping patterns (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.)
  • Regress in independence, maturity or toileting habits
  • Become withdrawn and not wanting to take part in things they used to enjoy.

Primary school age children (5-12 years)

This age group have gained some independence. They are more aware of what is going on and although some of their reactions will be similar to an infant they may also:

  • Need more emotional support than usual from their close family and friends.
  • Miss the interaction with school mates and other friends.
  • Feel uneasy and frustrated with the disruption to school work and after school activities.
  • Display bouts of anger and sadness about their illness and how it is causing loss of school and play time.
  • Withdraw from friends and reject school work as a way of protecting themselves from the disappointment of what has happened.

Teens

The diagnosis of cancer in the teenage years can be very confusing and overwhelming.  For some, their first reaction will be to push their family away as they try to cope with things alone. However, others will be drawn closer to their parents and siblings and rely on them more than ever. Possible reactions from teenagers can include:

  • Being angry and anxious about their body not working as it used to.
  • Becoming withdrawn and very low in mood (depressed)
  • Pretending things are OK and make a joke of their cancer and its treatment as a way of distracting from what is happening.
  • Rebelling against parents, teachers and medical staff making treatment and care more difficult.
  • Seeking support from those outside immediate family (e.g. friends, teachers etc) more than usual.
  • Feeling embarrassed and upset about what has happened to them especially if treatment has caused side effects which affect the way they look and act (hair loss, mobility problems or weight loss).

Adolescents and young adults

A cancer diagnosis during the adolescent & young adult years has different impacts for a young person compared to a younger child or older adult.  For young people, adolescence and young adulthood are times of emerging independence physically, psychologically and socially.  A cancer diagnosis and its treatment can mean negotiating this complex development as well as coping with a range of emotions which result from the stressors that cancer brings. Particular issues that young people may experience include:

  • Loss of independence
  • Changes to intimate, peer and family relationships
  • Altered physical function, fitness, self-esteem and body image
  • Questions about fertility
  • Disruption to schooling and education
  • Employment challenges and workplace rights
  • Financial & practical concerns

For more detailed information about how to help your child cope with those feelings, please read following articles:

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