Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Forward Look

Age Matters

By Jen A. Miller

Every child is unique, as will be your method for parenting each one through your cancer. Oncology social worker Melissa M. Thompson notes that a family counselor or social worker should be part of your treatment team. These professionals can help guide you through a time that is a crisis not just for the patient, but the whole family.

Look to these age-specific guidelines to help you formulate ideas for communicating with your child.

Very young children will “weave fantasy and logic together,” says Thompson. “This is how they create these great play worlds.” This also means that preschoolers think they control the world, which is not necessarily a good thing when a parent has cancer.

“Often, the preschooler will think they somehow caused the cancer,” Thompson says. Parents of preschoolers need to have repeated discussions with their children to explain—and reinforce—that they did not cause the cancer.

“You also want to ask a preschooler what they think about the cancer or what they understand about the cancer,” says Thompson. This way, you
can clarify any misconceptions they may have.

Elementary school
Elementary school children are engrossed with learning, which means they might be more interested in the cancer and your treatment than younger or older children. They may also want to accompany you to your treatment sessions, which Thompson says is fine if it’s cleared by your medical team.

While children this age don’t have the same level of magical thinking as preschoolers, they may still feel they played a part in your cancer. Logically, they know they didn’t cause your cancer, but they may still feel that their behavior contributed to the disease, says Thompson. “If they had a fight with you or they’re misbehaving, they’ll feel guilty about the cancer,” says Thompson. “Not that they caused it but that something they did impacted it in some way.”

“The wonderful thing about teens is that they are so self-absorbed and narcissistic,” Thompson says. “There is a great protection that comes with being a teenager because of their stage of development. The first thing [they may wonder]—besides ‘Can I catch it?’—is how is this going to impact my time with my peers and my activities?”

Talk to your teens about what will remain the same or change in their lives, she says. Include that, “Yes, they will still be going to school,” and how, if at all, your cancer will disrupt their schedules. Stress what will stay the same.

“Remember that teenagers are trying to break away from you anyway. This could push you a little bit further away,” says Thompson. But it’s normal, she says. Even if you were not sick, they would still be trying to form their own identities separate from mom and dad. 


Receive monthly updates, including information about web exclusives, events, resources, articles and highlights from new issues—direct to your email inbox. Be among the first to hear the latest news from Cancer Today! Click here to sign up!