For Parents: Caring for Your Child's Mental Health
Children know when their parents are feeling upset. They can tell even if their parents are trying to hide their feelings.
When you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, your child’s world will be affected by your experiences. Children see the effects of the ups and downs of treatments and side effects, the ongoing therapies or testing you might have, and your own emotions.
Children may feel a variety of emotions when they hear you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some children may feel guilty and worry that they have somehow caused the cancer. It is important to reassure children that they did not do anything to cause the cancer.
Children may also become anxious or sad when they try to understand what a breast cancer diagnosis means for you and them. Some children may speak openly about their feelings. Others may show their feelings through acting out or other changes in their behavior. Children may become clingy or do the opposite and withdraw, often wanting to spend time alone. They may argue more with their siblings or with you and other adults, sleep poorly, or become distracted or disruptive at school.
If you decide to delay sharing the news of your diagnosis with them and they hear it from another source, they may be more upset. It is best to share the news of the diagnosis with your children at a reasonable time after the diagnosis and provide love and support as they process the news.
Not all children will have the same emotional responses, even at the same age or within the same family.
After you tell your children about your breast cancer diagnosis, they may feel
- uncertain or anxious about what is going on with your health or what will happen in the future
- afraid of separation from you
- insecure about who will take care of them
- angry that family routine is changed
- embarrassed about physical changes caused by treatment, like your losing hair or eyebrows
- worried about “catching” or being at risk for breast cancer
- isolated from kids whose parents don’t have cancer
- nervous or upset when teachers, neighbors or friends ask about your health
- distressed at thinking about your possible death
- guilty for wanting to spend time with friends
- anxious about you becoming sick again
- worried that they somehow caused the cancer
There are good ways to prepare children and protect their emotional wellness after you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Consider your child’s age, how well they understand the world around them, and if they’ve experienced anyone else’s cancer diagnosis. Share only information you think they can handle. If your child had another relative with cancer in the past, they may be more prepared to hear details of your diagnosis than a child of the same age who has never seen cancer before. Very young children don’t need as much information, while older children may ask many more questions.
Try some of the tips below to help your children through difficult emotions. Or, if you find it challenging, consider making an appointment with a social worker or talk therapist at your cancer center. These professionals can meet with you and your kids together, to help the whole family cope.
To read more about how to tell children you have breast cancer, tips for what to say and insight into how the conversation might go, read our page on Talking to Children About Breast Cancer.
Encourage them to share how they feel
Have kids choose ways to express feeling anxious, sad, angry or scared. Have them try
- playing a sport or game with friends
- getting other physical activity by walking or bike riding
- building or baking something
- spending time outdoors
- writing or journaling
- helping you pick out a head covering or shaving your hair before treatment-related hair loss happens
- talking with people they trust
Stay connected and let them know they have your attention.
If you have to stay in the hospital, stay connected to your children so that they know how you are doing and feel informed:
- If children are allowed to visit, let them do so.
- Talk regularly by phone.
- Have a video chat (Skype, Facetime), so you can see each other in real time.
Let them feel useful
Let them help. Being involved in your care may help children feel they can make a difference, and calm some of their fears:
- Young children can bring you water or do simple tasks that give them a sense of helping. Ask them to draw you a picture or make a card.
- Teenagers can make a simple meal, drive you to appointments or help with a task you usually do yourself.
Children need a safe place to share their feelings about how your breast cancer diagnosis has changed their world.
They need support for distress they may feel when first told about what is happening and during your treatments, as you experience side effects such as hair loss or fatigue. If early-stage breast cancer comes back as metastatic disease, or you receive a stage IV diagnosis from the start, children need support to understand what that means and how you and your doctors are working to help you.
Talking with brothers, sisters or friends who share some of the same emotions may help children feel less alone. Family members, teachers or other trusted adults can help by letting children talk about what they’re feeling, openly and without criticism. School guidance counselors can also help children talk about their worries or fears.
Support groups and specialized camps help many children and teenagers deal with their emotions when a parent has cancer. In these places, they can meet other kids who know how they feel. This helps children share feelings and manage their emotions.
Ask a social worker if your hospital or cancer center has programs like these for children. If your hospital doesn’t offer one, your social worker may be able to recommend local or national organizations that do.
Your child or teen might have troubling emotions or behavior that is affecting their usual mood, activities and relationships with friends, family and others. You may notice them acting in ways that aren’t typical for them or reverting to younger behaviors, such as bed-wetting or frequent crying. While support groups and camps can be helpful, your child may need more individual attention from a counseling specialist.
You can seek help for your child from a therapist at any time. Seeing a therapist early, before problems grow into a crisis, can help your child or children learn how to process their emotions and talk about them in a constructive way. An experienced professional can help your child by listening and providing a supportive, private place to talk through distress and difficulties. The counselor can also help you understand your child’s needs and emotional responses, and find ways to nurture you both.
Talk with your pediatrician or oncology social worker. Ask for a referral to a professional mental health counselor who works with children who have parents diagnosed with cancer. Many therapists, such as psychologists, work in hospitals, cancer centers or in counseling service agencies.
Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer, American Cancer Society
When Mom Has Cancer: Helping children cope with a parent’s cancer diagnosis, University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Books that can be helpful for children:
Mom Has Cancer! (Let's Talk About It Series) by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
Talking with My Treehouse Friends about Cancer: An Activity Book for Children of Parents with Cancer by Peter R. van Dernoot
Becky and the Worry Cup: A Children's Book About a Parent's Cancer by Wendy Schlessel Harpham
My Book About Cancer (mother) by Rebecca C. Schmidt
Mummy's Lump by Gillian Forrest
This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58 DP005403, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.