How to help kids cope with a parent’s cancer: interview with an oncology social worker

The first thing I thought when I was diagnosed with breast cancer was what’s going to happen to my baby? I’m not alone in that thought, I’ve discussed the topic at length with my friends who are also juggling child rearing with cancer treatment. And it does impact the kids, but there are ways to help our kids cope with a parent’s cancer.

Michelle Massey runs the Camp Sparkle and Small Talk programs at Gilda’s Club in Seattle. She is a Licensed Clinical Social worker and a Board Certified Oncology Social Worker.  She got her start at Children’s Hospital working with kids with cancer, where she started to notice that the siblings needed some attention, too. Now her work focuses on the children of cancer patients.

We sat down at her kitchen table to discuss how kids are impacted by their parent’s cancer, and what we can do to help.  She was very clear in making the point that if a parent has cancer, the kids are affected. They might not show it. They might be perfect little angels because they don’t want to be a burden, but that doesn’t mean that they are not affected.

How to help kids cope with a parent's cancer

Kids are by nature ego-centric. There is nothing wrong with this, it is part of our developmental process, and hopefully, we grow out of that perspective. But it’s important to remember the eco-centric perspective when working with children who are dealing with their parent’s cancer. When they think the world revolves around them, then they naturally think they have an impact on everything that happens. That means when a parent gets cancer, they think it has something to do with them. It’s the same reason kids think it’s their fault if their parent’s get a divorce.

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The ego-centric perspective also means that the child’s biggest concern is “what is going to happen to me?” They are concerned about the well-being of their parent, but even more so, they want to know that whatever happens, someone is going to know that they like their peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into triangles, and which songs to sing as they tuck them in at night. Fear of abandonment is a normal reaction to this situation.

It is important to understand that a child’s anxiety around a parent’s cancer is an appropriate reaction, and not a sign of mental illness. Counseling and group therapy sessions can help kids develop the tools they need to weather the ups and downs of their parent’s cancer treatment. Additionally, this is not likely to be the last challenge in the child’s life, so the tools learned in counseling will be of lifelong benefit.

Group activities that involve other kids whose parents have cancer is also beneficial in that it provides an environment where the kids can feel normal. They don’t have to feel weird because everyone has cancer in their home.

I asked Michelle what specific advice she would give to parents who have cancer, and these were her suggestions:

How to help kids cope when a parent has cancer

  • Make sure your kids have an outlet for their feelings, even the “ugly” feelings – a safe place where they can talk about what’s going through their head without being shut down. (Counseling and group therapy are great for this)
  • If you do get a counseling for your kids, trust and confidentiality are of the utmost importance. The child needs to be able to say those things their afraid might hurt their parent’s feelings.
  • Allow them to feel their emotions rather than brushing them away.
  • Don’t try to fix everything. You can’t fix their emotions.
  • Ask them specifically what they are afraid of, the fear may take on different nuances at different times, and that will change the conversation.

The Camp Sparkle and Small Talk programs mentioned above are at Gilda’s Club Seattle. There are Gilda’s Clubs around the country, and while the specific offerings at each location may vary, the programs are available to cancer patients and their family members at no charge.

Michelle also works with young women with breast cancer, facilitating the Seattle meetup of the Young Survival Coalition.

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You can find more on the How to Juggle Cancer and Parenting Series here:

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