Supporting young people dealing with cancer in the family
Young people are already dealing with a whole range of physical, emotional and social changes and challenges. When cancer comes into your family, it’s another stressful thing for them to deal with.
Having a parent or sibling with cancer will disrupt your child’s ‘normal’ life. The impact on each child depends on many factors including their age, maturity, their relationships with other family members and whether they still live at home. After the initial shock and sadness, it’s common for young people to feel it’s not fair that this has happened to their family – that their Mum, Dad, sister or brother doesn’t deserve cancer, they don’t know how to deal with it, and they don’t want everything to have to change.
Make sure your child knows that whatever they are feeling is okay; there are no right or wrong reactions. Encourage them to talk to you (or someone) about their feelings because ignoring or feeling guilty about them won’t make them go away.
How you can support your children
Our research with young people who have a parent, brother or sister with cancer has found they most want or need:
- information about their family member’s cancer
- ‘time out’ away from the cancer, and to be able to still do their usual activities and have fun without feeling guilty
- support from their friends and other young people
- help dealing with their feelings
- understanding from their family
Below are some suggestions on how you can help them.
Tell your children you understand that dealing with all this is difficult for them and acknowledge the impacts it has on their lives. Reassure them that you and your family will be able to get through this.
Being honest and keeping them up-to-date as things change helps your children understand what’s happening to you and to feel less worried or isolated. Being fully informed about your condition (good or bad), likely treatment side effects and what might happen next helps them feel more secure and in control.
Young people want lots of information and will seek it out. Remind them to check in with you rather than believe everything they read on the Internet. Direct them to reliable sources that are written for young people (such as other sections of this site, and our printed resources).
Let them meet your doctor and/or other members of your treatment team and see where you will have treatment. This can help them adapt by removing some of the mystery and putting faces to the ‘names’ that are taking care of you.
It can be difficult in the circumstances, but try to maintain normal routines and preserve family time as much as possible. Tell your children it’s okay to go about their usual life – to see friends, play sport and do after-school activities.
Support them in keeping up at school, uni/TAFE or work. It’s a distraction and break from the stress at home and will help them cope. If your child is at school ask them who at the school you can tell what is going on (it needs to be someone they are comfortable with) so they can get support and special consideration with their assessments. If your child is at Uni or TAFE encourage them to talk to student support services and find out about the availability of counselling or how to get extensions for assessment or defer study for a while if they need to support you.
Young people need time away from ‘the cancer’. Let them know it’s okay for them to go out and have fun. Encourage them to continue or start new hobbies or activities that will distract them and give them some time away from the house or hospital.
They also need time alone to process all the changes and have time to think about things. Make sure they have a safe place they can go when/if they need to get away from the illness or stress at home, like a friend’s or neighbour’s house.
Make time for each of your children, so they know you’re still interested in what’s happening in their life. Do something together like watching a movie, going shopping or going out for a meal gives you both a distraction and makes your child feel valued.
Helping with housework can be a way for young people to help out and show their support. But there’s a fine line between asking your child to help and giving them too much responsibility.
Be careful not to overload them with extra responsibilities or give them tasks that are not age-appropriate. Many young people want to support their family – but make sure they don’t become ‘over-involved’ in caring for you and stop doing things they used to enjoy.
Others may feel pressured and resentful towards you. Let them know you understand they need their own time and space too.
When making decisions about changes to family routines or practices involve your children whenever possible.
For example, if your child is younger and needs to have someone care for them after school or while you are away for treatment, let them have a say in where to go or who they would prefer to look after them.
Believe it or not even your teenage or adult children still look to you as a role model. They will learn how to cope with serious life events by watching your reactions and behaviours.
If you are accepting and coping with your cancer, your children will feel more secure and positive.
If you feel you’re not coping well, talk to a member of your treatment team or social worker at the hospital about getting some professional support. If you’re worried about how to communicate with or support your children you can talk to one of Canteen’s counsellors: 1800 835 932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many people find it helpful to talk with other people with similar cancer experiences. Contact the Cancer Council (13 11 20) to find out about peer support programs or visit their online community for adults affected by cancer: www.cancerconnections.com.au.
Make it clear they can ask you questions about the cancer any time, and that you’ll be open and honest in response.
With adolescents and young adults it can help to make a communication contract – agree on a certain day and time that you will talk about the hard stuff and a day and time that cancer is off the agenda and you talk only about everyday things like school, friends, social things or work.
Your teenage or young adult child might not know how to talk about what’s going on. Look out for changes in how they are eating, body language, or behaviours that might be signs they’re not coping.
It’s not uncommon for young people to start behaving badly to hide their hurt or fear and get attention, or try out risky behaviours to ‘escape’ their feelings. They may start using drugs or alcohol, hurting themselves or others, using dating and sex to get close to people, or withdraw.
Sadness and worry are normal reactions when a parent has cancer. But if these feelings seem overwhelming, last for a long time and start to get in the way of their daily life it could be depression or anxiety, and your child may need professional support. Contact Canteen (1800 TelWeb or email@example.com) and one of our counsellors can help direct you to the right support.
If they are not willing to talk about it, try texting or emailing them a link to our online community page where they can talk to other young people who do get what they’re going through, or have a confidential and non-judgemental chat with a Canteen counsellor.
Ask for or accept offers of help from people outside your immediate family.
It can be tricky to know about all of the services that may be available, from financial and practical support to counselling. The social work department at your treatment hospital is often a good place to start, or you can contact Canteen on 1800 835 932, call the Cancer Council Helpline (13 11 20) or link with other cancer charities like Redkite. If you would like help to navigate which one may be best for your particular needs call us on 1800 835 932.
Help each of your children identify or form their support network. It might include family members, friends, peer support groups, and adults they trust like a teacher or neighbour.
Young people can find it difficult to tell their friends what’s going on or are disappointed when their friends don’t understand what they are going through or don’t provide the support they need. They might find our tips for staying in touch with friends helpful.
Tell them new friendships often grow out of shared experiences. It might be helpful to connect with other young people who have been through the same experiences in Canteen’s online community or peer support groups.