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The information in this section is general. Each child will have different needs at each stage. You and your children may have similar feelings and emotions.
Children’s understanding and emotional reactions can depend on how old they are. They’re usually able to understand more about illness as they get older, but this depends on the child - some younger children may understand things more easily than older children.
Babies and toddlers won’t understand what’s happening. They will be aware of changes to their routines and especially changes to who’s looking after them. Try to create an environment that’s as familiar and consistent as possible, especially for when you’re not there. If possible, choose someone to care for your child who knows them well and is able to look after babies/toddlers. Keep to familiar routines when you can.
Young children don’t really understand illness but pick up on tensions, changes in adult’s emotions and physical changes. They react to being separated from you and to changes in their routine. They also feel they have magical powers and that wishing or hoping can make things happen. They may feel guilty that they’ve done something to cause the cancer, or if you’re in hospital, make the parent go away. Older children in this group are beginning to understand what illness is and may worry they’ll get cancer too.
This age group can become clingy, scared of being separated from their parents and start to do things they’ve outgrown like thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, talking like a baby or having tantrums. They may become quieter than usual or have bad dreams.
At this age children can understand fuller explanations about the cancer and its effects on the body. They often have fears they may not mention to you. This includes worrying you’re going to die, that they’ve caused the cancer, or that they can catch it. They may try to be especially good, setting impossibly high standards for themselves. You may see changes in their behaviour, concentration, schoolwork or friendships. They may complain of physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach ache, loss of appetite or not being able to sleep.
The suggestions for children aged 3-5 still apply to many children in this age group. You may also want to:
Teenagers usually understand what’s going on in terms of the cancer but can be reluctant to talk about it. They may find it hard to talk to you or show how they feel. Teenagers may have to do more at home when they want to be more independent and spend less time in the house. This can make them feel angry and guilty at the same time. Sometimes their behaviour may be critical or hurtful. They may experience symptoms such as stomach ache, headaches, anxiety, loss of appetite or sleep problems.
Allowing teenagers to help out shows them that you need and trust them. Talk to them about it first and don’t allow them to take on too much responsibility.
Children can have lots of different emotional reactions. They can show their feelings by being angry or by misbehaving. Your child may react to your illness with behaviour you wouldn't normally accept. Some children may have problems with bed-wetting, eating or sleeping, or problems at school. They may seem sad and withdrawn, or have physical symptoms like going off their food, headaches or tummy aches.
These changes aren’t necessarily unusual but if they carry on or if there’s anything worrying you about your child, you can ask for help.
People who can offer you and your child support are:
Your cancer doctor or nurse will give you advice about counselling or psychological services to help you support your child. It’s important to ask for help when you need it.
Content last reviewed: 1 June 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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