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How your child may react
Children generally respond to a cancer diagnosis with the same types of emotions that their parents have. How your child reacts will also depend on their age and how much they understand the information they are given. Children can also be affected by how they see other people reacting.
Shock is a possible reaction. Children who didn’t feel sick before the diagnosis can find it very hard to believe the news and may deny that it’s possible. Your child may question why this has happened to them. Sometimes a child’s denial is so great that they physically and emotionally withdraw from the discussion by leaving the room or refusing to talk.
Fear, worry and anxiety are common. Understandably, their first fear is dying from cancer. They also fear the many tests and treatments that they will have to face. Even the thought of walking into a hospital can be frightening. Some children are anxious about how they will cope with treatment. Others worry about how their diagnosis affects their family. Sometimes this anxiety is increased if children feel like they have to be brave and hide their feelings so that their parents and siblings won’t worry.
Anger is another normal reaction that children may have after being diagnosed with cancer. They are mad that this has happened to them. They are angry at having to be poked and prodded, to swallow pills or bad-tasting medicines or to lie still in scanning or x-ray machines. They don’t like having their privacy invaded and don’t want to be kept in the hospital when they would rather be with their friends.
Guilt is also a common feeling. Children often think that they developed cancer because of something bad they did, said or thought or because of something they didn’t do (even something like cleaning their room). They may also feel guilty because they feel responsible for causing this crisis in the family. They feel bad about upsetting the normal family routine and taking the parents away from their siblings at home. And, because children are very aware of what their parents are feeling, they feel guilty about causing their parents so much worry and fear.
Sadness and depression are usually felt once the reality of the diagnosis has set in. Children feel sad when they realize that life is changing greatly and that they may not be able to do some of the things they used to do or some of the things they had planned to do. Thinking about months of treatment and changes to how they look or how they feel about themselves can lead to short periods of depression, and sometimes longer-lasting depression.
Children act out their feelings
Most children are still learning how to identify what they are feeling and how to express those feelings in words. They may not be able to describe how they are feeling and often display their emotions through tears, temper tantrums, not being their usual self or withdrawal and silence. Others may regress to behaviours they had stopped, such as sucking their thumb or wetting their bed.
Helping your child express feelings
Children learn how to express their emotions by watching others. If they see their parents express their own fears and worries very strongly, it will likely add to the child’s fears and concerns. But if parents do not show any feelings at all and do not talk about the cancer, children may feel like they can’t talk about it or that they need to hide their feelings in order to protect their parents. In these cases, the child may not feel comfortable talking to their parents, and the parents may not be able to give the support that the child so desperately needs at this time. Try to find a balance between letting the child see too much of your emotions and letting the child see none at all.
Being open and honest with yourself about your feelings and open and honest with your child will help them trust you – and if they trust you, they should feel safe enough to show emotions. This also helps your child to realize that they aren’t alone in what they are feeling.
Help your child to talk about their feelings and recognize their emotions. Teach them that feelings, even if they are very strong, can come and go and they won’t last forever.
Help them learn the difference between having feelings and acting them out in ways that hurt themselves or others. Show them different ways to release and express strong feelings through physical activities like running or sports and through art, music or talking.