Talking to Kids About Cancer
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Talking to Kids 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 make contact with these services. You can ask for help even before breaking the news to your children. A health professional could practise the conversations with you so that you feel better prepared.
You can also ask health professionals and organisations for help if you are worried about your children’s behaviour. You may choose to see or call the professional yourself, and to use their advice to sort out the problem. Most parents, with the right advice, can support their children through difficult situations. Occasionally, a child may need to attend a consultation, and parents might be asked to come too.
When to seek professional support for your child
While it’s difficult to know if your child’s reaction is typical or something more serious, sometimes extra support can help. Some warning signs that you should see a professional are 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 wetting the bed every night for a month
- refuses 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
- has noticeable concentration challenges (dropping grades)
- is spending more time online
- talks about wanting to die or is extremely preoccupied with dying
- 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- acts sad and withdrawn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
- is withdrawing from friends.
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 for many weeks in a row, they may see a change in behaviour, concentration levels, grades, eating habits and socialising with peers. This is one of the reasons it is valuable 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.
Health professionals who can help
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 – link you to support services and help with emotional, practical or financial issues.
Psychologists and counsellors – can help you with communication and behavioural issues (visit Australian Psychological Society to find a Psychologist).
School counsellors – are trained in child development and can be a useful source of support and ideas.
Psychiatrists – will see children with more serious issues (you will need a referral from a GP if your child is treated privately).
Practical and financial help
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, including:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to ease the financial impact of cancer treatment, such as help with the cost of prescription medicines, transport costs, utility bills 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
- 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. To find good sources of support and information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre, get in touch with Cancer Council 13 11 20 or download our booklets ‘Cancer and Your Finances’ and ‘Cancer, Work & You’.
If you feel overwhelmed
- A child’s ability to cope is often closely linked to how their parents are coping. Kids often copy their parents’ behaviour, so if Mum or Dad is depressed and anxious, they are more likely to be too. It is important to seek support if you feel overwhelmed.
- Ask family and friends for help. Let them know what you need – they will probably be relieved that you can give them something to do.
- Get practical assistance and information from Cancer Council SA and other organisations to help ease your worries. Call 13 11 20 for more information.
- Use complementary therapies, such as massage, hypnotherapy or relaxation techniques to manage stress.
- Contact CanTeen, Camp Quality or Redkite about programs that may help you and your children cope with cancer. Lifeline and Kids Helpline both provide 24-hour telephone counselling.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed December 2018 by the following expert content reviewers: Professor Kate White, Chair of Nursing, The University of Sydney, NSW; Sarah Ellis, Psychologist, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids with Cancer Foundation, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Chandra Franken, Program Manager – NSW & ACT, Starlight Children’s Foundation, NSW; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen, NSW; Keely Gordon-King, Cancer Counselling Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Stephanie Konings, Research Officer, CanTeen, NSW; Sally and Rosie Morgan, Consumers; Dr Pandora Patterson, General Manager, Research and Youth Cancer Services, Canteen, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, The University of Sydney, NSW and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK; Suzanne Rumi, Consumer; Michael Sieders, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality.