Coping with emotions when your child has cancer

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Learn strategies to help you cope with your emotions while taking care of your child with cancer.

Key points

  • All reactions you have to your child's cancer diagnosis are normal reactions.
  • Find support by talking to a social worker or other member of your child's health-care team, or join a support group at a hospital, in your community or online.

You probably never imagined that cancer would happen to your child. The diagnosis of cancer for your teenager changes your role as a parent and adds to your responsibilities.

On top of worrying about your teenager, and caring for them physically and emotionally, you still have other responsibilities in your life.

  • A home to look after
  • A job to maintain
  • Other dependants (children and/or older parents) to care for
  • Finances to look after

Add to this list the new responsibilities that come up when your child has cancer and these other responsibilities can seem overwhelming. One mother described feeling like she was being "pulled in so many directions at once." This section addresses some of the issues you may face, and offers some suggestions to help you cope.

In the wake of your child’s cancer diagnosis, almost any emotion can be considered normal. You might experience emotions that surprise you or feel inappropriate. Many parents feel somehow responsible for their teenager getting cancer and may blame themselves. In most cases, the causes of cancer are unknown. Focusing on the cause of cancer is unhelpful, and it wastes time and energy that could be spent coping in healthy ways or supporting your teen. Take some comfort in the knowledge that all of these things you are feeling are common and normal.

All reactions are normal reactions

Each person’s reaction to their child having cancer is different, but most parents will experience the following emotions at some point.

  • Shock, disbelief, or denial
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Sadness and depression
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Relief—knowing what is wrong and being able to begin treatment

Try to accept your reactions and realize that many other parents have had the same feelings. There will be highs and lows throughout the cancer journey. You want to be strong and stay positive for your child, but try to accept that sometimes you will need to attend to your own emotions. That’s OK. Managing your emotions and taking care of your own needs are important, and doing that will help you to better support the people in your life who need you.

Many parents find it helpful to discuss their feelings and reactions in a confidential setting with their child’s social worker or another member of the health-care team. They have experience helping not only the person with cancer, but also the family members of that person as well.

Join a group

Having a child with cancer can also be isolating. As with a lot of other issues you’ve faced as a parent, you have likely been able to turn to friends and family who have experienced similar situations. But this may not be the case when your teenager has cancer. You may feel removed from the people who have been able to support you before.

Depending on where you live, there may be groups of people in the hospital or community who have, or have had, a child with cancer or other life-threatening disease. A social worker, or another member of your child’s health-care team, can recommend a network or support group that meets either in person or online. One great thing about the internet and social media is that it provides the opportunity to connect with online support. Take time as you connect with others to ensure that the supports and information shared are healthy for you and accurate. If you aren’t sure about certain resources, ask your health-care team for advice about them. Many parents find it helpful to talk with others who have experienced what they’ve been going through.

Last updated: September 22nd 2018