Helping Kids Cope Requires Honesty, Creativity

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In 2010, researchers estimated there were more than 1.5 million cancer survivors in the United States parenting children under age 18, so when Christine Egan was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2011, she was well aware that hers wasn’t the only family with young children dealing with a cancer diagnosis. But the Bayport, N.Y. mom wanted to make sure her three children—who were 9, 11 and 13 years old when she was diagnosed—also understood they were far from alone.

Egan enlisted her kids’ help in creating a series of sticky notes with handwritten inspirational messages that she affixed to the dressing room mirror where she underwent 33 radiation treatments. With phrases such as, “Don’t look back—you’re not going that way,” and “Every day may not be great, but there’s something great in every day,” the gesture was designed to boost the spirits of fellow patients. Egan hoped it would also offer her own kids a valuable coping mechanism during a trying time.

“This showed them that this experience was way bigger than just us and made them understand how we can impact someone else,” Egan says.

Honesty, consistency and creativity are vital for children in adjusting to a parent’s cancer survivorship, experts say. Several tried-and-true tactics include:

> Be up front. Parents should call cancer by its name and tell children what they’re doing to treat the illness, as well as expected side effects. They should make sure kids understand they did not cause their parent’s cancer and that it’s not contagious, says Meredith Cooper, executive director and co-founder of Wonders & Worries, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that supports children through parental illness.

> Provide routines and reassurance. “Children thrive when they know their world is predictable,” Cooper says, adding that they need reassurance they’ll be cared for no matter what. “Keeping routines as normal as possible enhances their sense of security. Likewise, when the routine needs to change—either expectedly or unexpectedly— having the child know the new plan is very important.”

> Turn feelings into art. Kids can draw pictures, keep journals or even make bracelets with bead colors representing their different emotions about a loved one. “We find expressive art activities one of the best ways to help children express their feelings,” says Sue Heiney, co-director of the Cancer Survivorship Center at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing in Columbia, S.C.

> Prioritize “alone time.” One parent should try to spend at least 15 minutes each day focusing solely on each child in the family, Heiney says. “Talk to them about school, read a book . . . you don’t need huge amounts of time,” she adds. “Just some quality time so the child knows ‘My mother or father hasn’t forgotten me.’”

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