Helping Children Cope With A Parent's Chemotherapy

Discovering that a parent has been diagnosed with cancer can be an overwhelming and frightening experience for children. It's a road fraught with emotional hurdles. Yet, finding ways to communicate and support your children during these trying times is crucial, helping them navigate the storm of emotions and uncertainty that comes with this life-altering news.

If your treatment includes chemotherapy, you might find yourself grappling with the delicate task of preparing your child for the possible side effects of chemo, like fatigue, hair loss, nausea, and a higher risk of infections due to a weakened immune system.

Emotionally, the treatment can be a profound source of stress, anxiety, and depression for patients. The uncertainty about treatment outcomes, the alteration in physical appearance, and the disruption of daily life can lead to feelings of helplessness and distress.

Watching a parent undergoing chemotherapy can bring about a premature confrontation of the vulnerability of their parent, which may instill fear, anxiety, and even an unusual burden of responsibilities at a tender age. Simultaneously, it can foster an environment of increased empathy, resilience, and depth of understanding as children may become more acutely aware of life’s fragility and the importance of health. Continue reading for tips and advice to help children cope when a parent is receiving chemotherapy.

Communicate Openly and Honestly

You might think that your children won't comprehend or even remember that you are unwell when you discuss your treatment with them. It might seem easier to remain silent, believing there's nothing to lose.

However, opening up about your treatment can be incredibly beneficial. Initiating treatment can be daunting, but many patients and their families experience relief once there’s a plan and the treatment starts.

If your kids are already aware of your diagnosis, they'll find comfort in knowing you're actively working towards recovery. Sharing this journey with them can deepen your bond, showing them you trust and value their understanding and support.


Kids in this age group tend to think concretely, so explain your treatment plan using simple words. The attention span of preschoolers is short, so keep conversations brief. For example, you might describe chemotherapy as a "good medicine" that will fight bad cells or "help make mom's sickness go away."

Because preschoolers are very aware of their physical surroundings, help them prepare for any possible changes in your appearance or the set-up of the household. For instance, explain that grandma will be coming for an extended visit to help or that the medicine that gets rid of bad cells also makes your hair fall out.

Preschoolers have a different sense of time than grown-ups and are much more creatures of the moment. So, while you may decide to give them information well before a change in your appearance, treatment, or routine, be prepared to repeat the information much closer to the time it will occur.

Games and pretend play are important ways kids of this age process information. Drawing pictures with them, making a stuffed animal hospital, or encouraging them to try on your wig are activities that may help your young children absorb this news.

School-Age Children

At this developmental stage, children are expanding their understanding of the human body, including its functioning and health-related concepts. They can grasp more detailed information about your treatment, though it's still best to keep discussions straightforward, clear, and concise. School-aged children can process more complex explanations than younger children.

It's important to communicate that your treatment is a proactive measure against cancer. However, children will also be curious about the practical implications for you and themselves. Discussing side effects like hair loss or reduced energy in a factual, unembellished manner can be helpful.

Children's prior experiences with medicine, often short-term for minor illnesses, may contrast sharply with the prolonged nature of chemotherapy or radiation. It's beneficial to clarify that extended treatment doesn't necessarily imply persistent cancer but is a strategy to prevent its recurrence.

When seeking your children's cooperation, be precise about the reasons. For instance, explain that while germs don't cause cancer, your treatments may lower your immunity, necessitating extra precautions like frequent hand washing. Discuss any temporary changes in physical interactions, like reduced kissing, reassuring them that these measures are until your health improves.

Children may not immediately react to these discussions, often returning to routine activities. They might raise questions or express concerns later, so it's important to revisit these discussions periodically, encouraging them to ask further questions or share their thoughts.

Children's responses to these conversations may manifest behaviorally, such as social withdrawal, increased clinginess, or heightened aggression towards siblings or peers. Monitoring for these signs is crucial for understanding their coping mechanisms.

As children grow, their concept of time becomes more concrete. Using a calendar to track the treatment duration can be effective, especially when related to familiar events or milestones, like saying, "I'll complete my treatment just before July 4." This approach helps them visualize the treatment timeline in the context of their own experiences.


In this phase of life, your children are on the brink of adulthood, and it's crucial to honor their evolving independence. Engage them by asking what they're curious about regarding your health and provide clear, honest responses. Remember, you don't have to delve into every detail in one sitting. Be prepared to revisit and clarify topics as needed.

Regular updates about your health condition can be beneficial. Some young people, especially those with a family member battling cancer, may not want exhaustive details but prefer to stay informed and feel included. Conversely, others might seek comprehensive information, fearing the unknown if kept in the dark.

Teens often seek a more active role in managing health crises. They may express a desire to meet your medical team or accompany you to treatments like chemotherapy or radiation sessions. If you're comfortable, accommodating these requests can be empowering for them.

While teenagers can grasp complex concepts, they still benefit from specific, tangible details about how your treatment impacts both of you. Like with younger children, using a calendar to explain timelines can be helpful. For instance, outlining the surgery date and recovery period or the chemotherapy schedule up to a significant break like spring vacation makes it more comprehensible.

Adolescents frequently turn to the internet or their peers for information. As a result, they might not always see you as the primary source of knowledge about your condition. If your teen is researching online, gently remind them that medical information rapidly evolves, and what they find may not directly apply to your situation. Encourage them to discuss their findings with you, fostering an open dialogue.

Maintain an open-door policy for conversations about your diagnosis and treatment. Encourage them to come to you when they need clarification or guidance about information they've encountered elsewhere. 

Help Us Empower Children 

The cancer journey is difficult, but open communication, honesty, and age-appropriate inclusion can help kids feel informed, empowered, and supported. Consider counseling if children struggle to cope day-to-day.

Your generosity allows us to offer Camp Kesem, along with our virtual and day programs and year-round services, free of charge, so any child dealing with a parent’s cancer can begin to heal, regardless of their economic situation. 

There are so many ways to give. Donations help Kesem change lives! You can help by participating in fundraising; donating through planned giving, donor-advised funds, or stock donations; attending or sponsoring an event; or shopping at our store. With your support, we can ensure that more children impacted by a parent’s cancer can feel joy, hope, and the magic that is Kesem.

To maintain a high standard of accuracy and reliability in the information provided to you, we ensure that our content is sourced from diverse, credible, and verified authorities like academic institutions and journals, reputable media outlets, government agencies, and recognized industry experts.

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