Parenting a Child with Cancer

By Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. and Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D., California, USA

The psychological literature identifies the importance of giving children space as they grow so they can become more independent. If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, how does that impact your ability to let go? Of course you want your kids to develop the inner strength and skills to be on their own. But these are particular circumstances.

You may be stuck in a new phenomenon that falls under the colorful moniker of Helicopter Parents. If you're hovering, offering protection from life’s ups and downs or micromanaging from afar, you fit the description. But, for the well-being of your children, and despite how hard it may seem, you can begin to step back. Here are some practical tips to help you get started:

  • Express emotions. Kids pick up signals from you even when you think you're protecting them. Talk with your children about how they’re feeling but try not to burden them beyond their years and capability. Their anxiety can manifest in many different behaviors, like acting out, avoidance, withdrawal. Or they may complain of physical problems such as headaches or stomachaches. Let them know it’s OK to feel angry, sad, frustrated or cry. And help them discover ways to understand and manage their feelings.
  • Support them. Resist taking on responsibilities that should fall to them as you let them explore and discover for themselves. Encourage their unique ideas, especially if they’re feeling insecure or less confident. They may worry about how classmates will react to them if they’ve missed a lot of school or return with physical changes. Brainstorm and help them think about how to answer questions so that they can feel more comfortable.
  • Back away. Being too directive fosters reliance. When you continue to be worried or upset about particular situations, you’re giving your kids the message that you don’t trust they can handle it on their own. Realize that this is a time in their lives when developing problem-solving and decision-making skills are paramount to building self esteem.
  • Reduce stress. Young children's fears can often be calmed by reassurance and love. Your other children may feel sorry for their sibling, but they have to make adjustments as well. They sometimes feel angry that they’re getting less attention and guilty for feeling that way. Everyone needs the chance to express how their emotions. Physical activities and deep breathing exercises can bring about a greater sense of relaxation. And when you help reduce your kids’ stress, yours will settle down too.
  • Keep talking. As you discuss cancer, treatment and care, keep the lines of communication open. Coming face-to-face with your fears will bring about greater family solidarity and closeness. Get support online or in a group from others who understand your challenges. The more you are able to discuss the strains affecting all of you, the sooner you can begin to cope with them. You may not be able to eliminate all the anxiety, but you can reduce it.

Even with a diagnosis of cancer, your child still has the same needs as other young people - going to school, staying in touch with friends, enjoying the things that were a part of life before the diagnosis. They may feel lonely, different, disconnected. You can help meet their needs by encouraging them to live as normal an everyday life as possible.

Teenagers with cancer have special concerns. They often complain that their parents try to protect them too much. They’re at a stage in their lives when they are naturally trying to individuate and have more autonomy. Giving them the chance to make their own decisions and choices, when possible, will help a lot.

So where do you draw the line between support and intrusion, between encouragement and control? You want protect your kids and you know they need to separate. Just remember that having them be accountable for their own actions is good for their sense of self-sufficiency and positive self-esteem. Isn’t that what you really want anyway?

© 2012, Her Mentor Center

Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. and Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. are family relationship experts who have developed a 4-step model for change. If you are coping with acting-out teenagers, aging parents, boomerang kids or difficult daughters-in-law, we have the solutions that make family rifts disappear. Visit our website,, to subscribe to Stepping Stones, a free ezine and our blog,, to receive practical tips and our free e-book, Courage and Lessons Learned.