Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Helping children cope

The following is a list of suggestions for patients, parents and siblings that may help each individual cope with his/her emotions, depending upon the age of the child with cancer and the age of the siblings.

Infants and very young children (birth to 3 years of age)
Toddlers, preschool (3 to 5 years of age)
School-aged children (6 to 12 years of age)
Adolescents (13 to 18 years of age and older)

Infants and very young children (birth to 3 years of age)

  • For patients
    • holding
    • touching
    • rocking
    • soft music
    • hugging
    • cuddling
    • distracting with toys or colorful objects
    • creating a cheerful hospital room
    • having siblings visit
    • keeping their regular schedule for sleeping and feeding
  • For siblings
    • providing cuddling
    • hugging frequently
    • arranging visits to ill brother or sister
    • keeping them near parents, if possible
    • using relatives, friends or a daycare center to maintain their usual daily routine
    • having one parent spend time with them daily
    • recording lullabies, stories, messages when parent cannot be at home
    • offering frequent reassurance to toddlers that mommy or daddy will soon be back

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Toddlers, preschool (3 to 5 years of age)

  • For patients
    • giving very simple and repeated explanations for what is happening
    • providing comfort when child is upset or fearful
    • checking on child’s understanding of what is happening
    • offering choices when possible
    • teaching acceptable expression of angry feelings
    • maintaining a normal daily schedule for feeding and sleeping
    • giving simple explanation for parent’s distress, sadness or crying
  • For siblings
    • giving a simple explanation that brother or sister is sick and that people are helping
    • offering comfort and reassurance about parent’s absence
    • arranging for reliable daily care and maintenance of usual routines
    • having one parent see child daily, if possible
    • remaining alert to changes in behavior
    • reassuring child about parent’s distress or sadness

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School-aged children (6 to 12 years of age)

  • For patients
    • offering repeated reassurance to your child that he or she is not responsible for the cancer
    • teaching that sadness, anger and guilt are normal feelings
    • allowing your child to keep feelings private, if that is preferred
    • suggesting personal recording of thoughts and feelings through writing and/or drawing
    • arranging for physical activity, when possible
    • providing explanations your child can understand about diagnosis and treatment plan; including your child, when ppropriate, in discussions about diagnosis and treatment
    • answering all questions honestly and in understandable language, including, “Am I going to die?” (talk with cancer care team about how to answer)
    • listening for unasked questions
    • facilitating communication with siblings, friends and classmates, if desired
    • arranging contact with other patients to see how they have dealt with diagnosis
  • For siblings
    • teaching about normal feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness or anger
    • encouraging sibling to communicate feelings; suggesting sibling write, telephone, send drawings or taped message to patient
    • providing understandable information about diagnosis and treatment
    • answering all questions honestly, including, “Will he or she die?”
    • listening for unasked questions, especially about personal health
    • offering repeated reassurance that sibling is not responsible for causing the cancer
    • informing teachers and coaches of family situation
    • arranging for school and other activities to continue on schedule
    • supporting sibling’s having fun, despite brother or sister’s illness
    • planning for daily availability of one parent
    • explaining that parents’ distress, sadness or crying is okay

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Adolescents (13 to 18 years of age and older)

  • For patients
    • giving information on normal emotional reactions to a cancer diagnosis
    • encouraging expression of feelings to someone: parents, family, staff or trusted friends or adults
    • tolerating any reluctance to communicate thoughts and feelings
    • encouraging journal keeping
    • providing repeated reassurance that they are not responsible for causing the cancer
    • being included in all discussions with parents about diagnosis and treatment planning
    • being encouraged to ask questions (parents should listen for unasked questions) 
    • addressing spiritual concerns about “Why me?” 
    • permitting private time for interaction with team professionals 
    • offering assurance that parents and family members will be able to manage crisis 
    • encouraging sharing news of diagnosis with peers and classmates 
    • arranging for visits of siblings and friends 
    • facilitating contact with other adolescent patients, if desired 
  • For siblings
    • involving adolescent in events around diagnosis
    • reassuring that cancer is not contagious 
    • offering assurance that nothing they did or said caused the cancer 
    • providing detailed information on diagnosis and treatment plan 
    • answering all questions honestly 
    • arranging access to treatment team, if desired 
    • discussing spiritual issues related to diagnosis 
    • encouraging expression of feelings 
    • arranging for management of daily life at home 
    • providing assurance that family will be able to handle crisis 
    • informing teachers and coaches of family situation 
    • encouraging usual involvement in school and other activities 
    • asking relative or friend to take a special interest in each adolescent sibling

Various members of your cancer team can assist you and your family as needed.

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