How to Help Children Cope With a Family Member’s Mesothelioma Diagnosis
The news of a mesothelioma diagnosis is often shocking and distressing. Many parents want to shield children from stressful situations. Yet, maintaining open communication can allow children and teens to process feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Depending on your family’s needs, there are several techniques and resources available to help children cope with a family member’s mesothelioma diagnosis.
As cancer treatment begins, family routines and dynamics may change. Moreover, they may continue to change over the course of treatment. Children may become confused and worried if parents don’t talk to them first.
In general, many therapists recommend parents take the lead in discussing another family member’s cancer with their children to help them cope. Afterward, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other loved ones may talk with the children – if the parents and kids feel comfortable.
Effect of a Family Member’s Cancer on Children
Childhood and adolescence are essential periods for physical, mental, and emotional development. Family crises have the potential to disrupt this growth and leave lasting effects. For example, a study of daughters of breast cancer survivors revealed feelings of anxiety, detachment, and impending disaster decades later.
As their loved one goes through treatment, children may begin to react with extreme anger or sadness to small triggers. They may avoid conversations with adults, withdraw from friends, or act ashamed of their relative with cancer. Other stress symptoms might include:
- Aggressive or destructive behavior
- Excessive crying
- Inflamed asthma
- Loss of appetite
- Poor school performance
- Skin rashes
- Sleep disorders
- Stomach pains
Untreated depression may, in severe cases, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Tips for Talking About Cancer to Children
Talking with children about upcoming changes before they happen is the best way to ensure family togetherness and reinforce stability. It may not be easy to discuss complicated topics with young minds. However, it’s better for them to hear it from you than be misinformed by friends, other siblings, or overhearing a conversation.
According to the American Cancer Society, children of all ages should be told the following facts about their family member’s cancer:
- Name of the cancer (such as mesothelioma cancer)
- Part of the body where cancer began
- How their life might change
- Treatment overview
Use the tips below for talking to your children about cancer.
Find a quiet place to talk.
Finding a quiet place free of distractions is the first step in having a conversation about a family member’s cancer diagnosis. Young minds become sidetracked easily, and they may miss an important piece of information.
Use age-appropriate language and don’t avoid the word “cancer.”
Younger children probably won’t understand complex medical explanations. Speak to them at their level without avoiding the term “cancer.” Being specific prevents confusion about the illness among younger kids. For teens, it can ease feelings of despair.
Let them talk about their feelings.
Let them know it’s okay to feel and to feel differently than other members of the family. Children of any age need the space to openly talk about how they feel after receiving big news. Open communication reinforces a child’s sense of safety. Let them know their feelings are normal and it’s okay to feel differently than other members of the family.
Assure young children it’s not their fault and is not contagious.
While it may seem obvious to adults, children need assurance that a parent or other family member’s illness is not their fault. Also, they cannot catch any side effects they see.
Fill teens in with more facts but consider splitting the conversation into parts.
Teens may be able to handle more detailed facts about the situation – but they’re still kids. After delivering heavy news, give them space to think about what you’ve told them. You can also split the conversation into parts and allow them to process new/additional information each time.
Be honest yet positive.
Whatever the discussion with your children, be honest and don’t mislead them about your prognosis or complications from the disease and/or treatment. If you must talk about death, don’t use words like “sleeping.” The misunderstanding might lead to a child’s fear of bed each night. Yet, it’s important to remain positive and hopeful. Let children ask questions knowing that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Keep the door open for future conversations.
Make sure kids of all ages know they can ask questions at any time. Kids may not have questions right away. Knowing they can return with their thoughts later is reassuring.
Practice with an adult and wait until your calm to begin the conversation.
You may need to practice what you’ll say beforehand. Choose another adult who can give you honest criticism and advice. Moreover, wait to speak with children until you’re okay to do so.
After talking with kids about a family member’s cancer, watch for changes in their mood or behavior. They may not have an immediate reaction, but that doesn’t mean they’ve fully adjusted to new arrangements. Spotting small problem behaviors early will help you address them appropriately.
Helping Children Cope and Adjust to New Arrangements
A loved one’s mesothelioma diagnosis might mean changes to family schedules and responsibilities. For example, a parent or grandparent may not be able to coach a child’s team. Children may also have to adjust to changing living arrangements or cutting back on buying certain products. These types of changes could breed feelings of uncertainty and resentment if the child doesn’t understand why.
Parents should do their best to curtail interruptions to children’s routines. Ask for help from other family members and friends if needed. Parents can also use the resources below for support when helping children cope with a family member’s mesothelioma diagnosis.
- Camp Kesem – Passionate college students lead no-cost programs and events for children affected by a parent’s cancer.
- Cancer Support Community – Free educational programs and professional support groups for every child and family of any age affected by a cancer diagnosis.
- Dougey Center – Online and printable activities and toolkits for kids and teens to cope with their grief after the loss of a family member.
- “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis” – printable tips from the American Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute’s LiveHelp – Help for patients, family, and friends finding personalized cancer support resources.