Coping with the changes that cancer may bring
You and your children are unique. How you all respond to the situation will depend on different factors, including the way your family normally deals with feelings.
Some parents worry about showing their feelings or crying in front of their children. However, there are good reasons to show how you feel. Hiding or bottling up your feelings also takes up energy and can make you feel even more anxious.
We have more information on the emotional effects of cancer. Showing your feelings can make it easier for your child to show theirs – it’s like giving them permission to do the same.
Showing your feelings
The way children cope is often closely linked to how their parents cope. Children may need to be shielded from strong outbursts of emotion, such as arguments and rows between adults. But it’s okay to cry in front of them sometimes, or to tell them you’re fed-up or angry about your illness.
Let them know that crying helps you feel better and there may be times when they’ll need to do the same. They shouldn’t think crying is babyish or that they have to be strong. Explain that feelings like sadness and anger are normal and it’s okay to show these. This helps your children accept these feelings as normal, rather than be frightened of them or feel that it’s wrong to have them.
Always let your children know how much you love them through words, hugs and kisses. Sometimes your children may feel resentful about not getting enough of your attention. Or you may feel irritated by them or lose your temper. Don’t be hard on yourself. The demands of children can be difficult to manage at the best of times. Your reactions may be quite normal or heightened because you’re under a lot of stress.
Talk this over with your partner or family to try to make sure you’re getting enough support and time out to help you cope. This can stop things at home becoming too tense.
Changes to family life
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It can help if you try to keep family life as normal and as stable as possible for the children. This isn’t easy, but there are things you can do that may make it easier.
Changes in routines
Disruptions and changes in routine are to be expected, but it’s important your children know how their day-to-day routines are going to be affected. Children, especially younger ones, like and depend on routine – it helps them feel safe. Tell them about changes in advance and make sure they always know:
who’s looking after them when you’re not there
who’ll pick them up from college, school or nursery
who’s taking them to activities such as swimming lessons
any other changes to their normal routine.
Sometimes, even with planning, arrangements have to change at short notice. Try to show your children that things can also be flexible, and involve them as much as you can in any new plans.
Teenagers are often keen to help out when someone in their family is ill. This could mean anything from doing the washing-up to accompanying the person to appointments.
Allowing teenagers to help in these ways can have many benefits, both for you and for them. They may learn new skills and feel more mature. At the same time, it’s important to make sure they don’t try to take on too much. Let them know that while you might need their help, they should also carry on focusing on their schoolwork and doing things they enjoy, such as seeing their friends.
In some families, teenagers won’t need to do any more than they usually would. In others, they may have more responsibilities to take on. Some teenagers become carers when a family member has cancer. A carer is someone who provides unpaid support to a family member or friend who could not manage without this help. We have more detailed information if you are a young carer.
Have family time
Life can often be busy when you’re coping with cancer, so it’s important to have some uninterrupted time with your family.
If possible, ask people to contact you by text or email rather than by phone. People often want to help or let you know they’re thinking of you, but they don’t usually expect you to reply, so don’t feel you have to. You could also switch your phone off at mealtimes.
We have some suggestions for ways you can spend time with your family at home, even when you don’t have much energy.
Ask people to look after your children or take over some of the things you usually do. Choose people who your children feel safe, comfortable and familiar with. Younger children need consistency, so if possible it’s a good idea to have the same person helping.
Don’t be reluctant to accept offers of help, especially when it frees you up to spend time with your children.
Other parents are often willing to lend a hand by helping out with the children after school or nursery.
Ask a relative or close friend to coordinate the help that’s been offered. A rota system can often be worked out, and you can use a calendar or chart to keep track of who’s helping when.
Get extra help if you need it. We have more information about childcare when a parent has cancer.
Keeping to the usual limits
Even when family life is going well, it’s often hard to be consistent and to set rules and limits for your children. It’s especially hard when you’re coping with cancer and worried about your children’s reactions to your illness. Children and teenagers need love and support, but they also need the usual discipline to help them to feel secure. It’s important to try to keep to your usual family rules. If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour and need support, help is available.