Brain tumours and self-image

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Find out how your child's self-esteem may be affected by changes in appearance resulting from brain tumour treatment.

Key points

  • Your child or teenager may look different and/or have changes in their physical abilities as a result of the tumour, which can have an impact on their self-esteem and self-image.
  • Encourage your child to talk about their feelings and be aware of your reaction to your child's changes in appearance and/or abilities.
  • Members of your child’s care team may be available to assist in talking to your child and support you with strategies. There are also several organizations available to help people with cancer feel better about their self-image.

Your child or teenager may have changes in their appearance and/or physical abilities as a result of the tumour or treatment. They may have difficulty controlling their body in the same way that they did before the tumour. For example, they may have problems with running or throwing a ball. During and after treatment, they may lose their hair, or have scarring or weight changes. These changes may go away in time or they may be permanent.

Many children and teenagers become self-conscious or embarrassed about these changes. They may be especially anxious about whether their peers will accept the changes in appearance and/or abilities. It will take time and your child may need extra support to adjust to this life-changing situation.

Starting at diagnosis and throughout treatment, your child or teenager may have feelings of loss. Self-image differs depending on a child’s or teenager’s developmental stage. For example, a toddler might not mind losing their hair or they might think it is great if their parent or other family members shave off their hair too. On the other hand, a teenager may be devastated by the loss of all their hair.

How to help your child with self-image

It’s important to normalize the significance of this experience. Here are some suggestions to help your child or teenager:

  • Encourage your child or teenager to express their feelings and help them understand that they are a unique individual going through an extraordinary situation.
  • Be aware of your reaction to your child's changes in appearance and/or abilities. While it is healthy to share your emotions, if you show significant distress in response to the changes, it may upset them more.
  • Let your child take the lead on coping with their appearance. If they want, you can introduce them to choices for hair alternatives such as wigs, hair coverings, or hats.

Reinforce your child’s sense of ability

Self-image is also connected to your child’s sense of ability. Throughout the journey, it is important to reinforce your child’s capacity to manage the demands of treatment, side-effects, and potential need for physical rehabilitation. Supporting children as they manage the emotional impact of changes in abilities is an important aspect of their care. Team members at the treating hospital or rehabilitation centre can provide support and strategies to navigate your child’s path to recovery. While being mindful about the realistic goals of recovery, it is important to acknowledge both immediate and long-term gains in ability.

Looking ahead

Eventually your child or teenager may get to a point where they feel comfortable with aspects of their appearance and/or ability. They may be able to think about these changes in a positive way and feel brave in handling their challenges. Emphasize your child’s character and strength in dealing with difficult experiences, illness, or changes in appearance. This may include feelings of grief and loss as they deal with the impact of experiences beyond their control. You can talk about changes being the result of their journey to recovery. Some treatment institutions have programs to acknowledge children’s accomplishments through treatment, such as 'bravery beads'. The change, then, becomes a sign of bravery and not of weakness.

Last updated: January 10th 2022