Getting support - Talking to kids about cancer
Talking to children about cancer can be daunting, but you are not alone. Cancer Council can provide information and support, and can point you in the right direction for specialised assistance. This section explains when to seek professional help for a child and lists many support organisations. It includes books to read and a glossary to help you explain cancer to younger and older children
Learn more about:
- Getting support
- When to seek professional support for your child
- Health professionals who can help
- Practical and financial help
- Support services
- Online cancer information
- Books about cancer
Many professionals and organisations can help you communicate with your children throughout your experience with cancer. You don’t need to have a specific problem to contact these services. You can ask for support even before sharing the news with your children.
If you are worried about your children’s behaviour, you can also ask health professionals and organisations for help. You may choose to see or call the professional yourself, and to use their advice to sort out the problem. With the right guidance, most parents can support their children through difficult situations. Occasionally, a child may need to see a health professional, and parents might be asked to come too.
Children and teenagers react to a cancer diagnosis in their family in a range of ways. It’s hard to know when professional support may be needed, but you may consider it if your child:
- has a change in their usual behaviour (e.g. aggressive or regressive behaviour) that is ongoing
- is showing less mature ways of coping, such as regularly wetting the bed
- is refusing to go to school – they may say they are too sick for school, but actually have separation anxiety and think they need to stay home to look after their parent
- has a persistent change in eating habits
- shows noticeable concentration challenges (dropping marks at school)
- is spending more time online
- is having trouble sleeping
- acts sad and withdrawn
- demonstrates severe behaviour, such as self-harm
- has increased risk-taking behaviours, such as alcohol or drug use
- talks about wanting to die or is extremely preoccupied with dying
- is withdrawing from friends.
For children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other special needs, you may need to seek professional help sooner.
Teachers and other school staff can be among the first people to notice that something is worrying a young person. Because they see children every weekday, they may see a change in behaviour, concentration levels, marks, eating habits and socialising with peers. This is one of the reasons it may be a good idea to let the school know what is going on at home and to ask them to contact you if they have any concerns about how your child is coping.
Professionals to see if you are concerned about your child include:
- Your GP and specialists – may be able to talk to your children, or help you decide whether to consult a psychologist.
- Nurses – may be the most regular contact you have with the treatment centre and are a source of information and support.
- Social workers – often part of the cancer care team, can link you with support services and help with emotional, practical or financial issues.
- School counsellors – are trained in child development and can be a useful source of support and ideas.
- Psychologists and counsellors – can help you with communication and behavioural issues (visit Australian Psychological Society and scroll down to “Find a Psychologist”).
- Psychiatrists – will see children with more serious issues (you will need a referral from a GP).
A cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life, and it often creates practical and financial issues.
There are many sources of support and information to help you, your family and carers navigate all stages of the cancer experience. These include:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to help cover the cost of cancer treatment, such as assistance in paying for prescription medicines, transport and utility services
- drafting of wills or basic legal advice
- home care services, such as Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses and home help
- aids and appliances to make life easier at home
- support groups and programs, and counselling services.
The availability of services may vary depending on where you live, and some services will be free but others might have a cost. For more information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre. You can also contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20 or see Cancer and your finances and Cancer, work and you.
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
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Practical advice and support during and after treatment