The following was written by Erin Pridgen LPC, RPT. Erin is a Registered Play Therapist and Liscensed Professional Counselor at the Summit Counseling Center in Johns Creek, GA. Her areas of specialty include working with children on the autism spectrum, anxiety and depression, learning disabilities, divorce, grief, and child/parent therapy. 

When a family is dealing with the trials and tribulations of childhood cancer, many aspects of life get neglected. Out of necessity, schedules change, you have to back out of activities you’ve signed kids up for or that you’ve agreed to go to, you’re less available to friends and family, you can’t be the room parent at the elementary school, and those are just a few examples. The physical, mental and emotional toll taken on families is more intense than anyone can understand. The most difficult area of unintentional change comes when parents must spend so much of their time focusing on the child patient that they have less time and energy to spend on their other children at home.

In every family, there is a need for balance. This need only increases when a childish diagnosed with cancer. Stability and consistency in a child’s life establish a sense of safety and security. This sense of safety and security is what helps a child cope with the unexpected changes in life that are guaranteed to happen at one time or another. Maintaining this kind of balance is even more important when a family is dealing with the upheaval of cancer, yet it’s the much more difficult to do. While one might assume that child patient is most affected by these changes, their siblings are equally affected but in different ways.

Siblings often fall into one of a few categories when it comes to dealing with  change around a major life event like a cancer diagnosis. First is the child who wants to do all her can to help and so always puts his best foot forward and foes with the flow of change on the outside – even if he is screaming on the inside with fear, worry and a host of other emotions. Second is the child who fights the change and pitches her own special brand of fit – mostly filled with resentment, guilt, and a host of other emotions. Third is the kid who just sinks quietly into the background so he won’t cause any further disruption in the family’s life while he, like the first kid, suffers on the inside. Finally is the kid who is any combination of the above depending on the day. Different kids react differently to change. Children don’t often have the capacity to tell parents how they feel about what’s going on, especially younger children. However, for all children, their behavior can be a parent’s guide to determining how they are coping.

What behaviors should you look for? There are as many different behaviors as there are kids but most behaviors fall into a few categories. The first category is school. Are her grades dropping? How are her friendships? Is she getting into more trouble than usual? The worry and fear that a sibling feels in response to her brother’s or sister’s illness can easily creep into school causing more distractions, irritability and impulsivity.

The second category is eating and sleeping. Is he eating more/less during times of heightened stress? Is he struggling to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, or having nightmares? Changes in these habits also lead to more irritability, hypersensitivity and general crabbiness which is out of the ordinary.

The last category is behavior and mood. They key here (as with aCURE Childhood Cancerll of the others) is change. Kids might have a tendency to act out more, talk back more and be less responsive to discipline which always worked before. Is the child crying more or just crying over simple little things that don’t seem like a big deal? Is she withdrawing to her room? Is she arguing with her siblings (or parents, or friends)  more? Overall, uncharacteristic changed which last longer than normal are the key indicators that siblings are struggling more than they might care or have the capacity to admit.

The number one way to help you child cope with the major changes in their lives is to make sure they feel heard. Allow your kids to voice their frustrations. If they don’t speak up, acknowledge their frustration anyway. “This week has been rough for you. It’s not easy when our family schedule is always changing.” “You’re disappointed that mom and Suzie can’t make it home in time for your soccer game.” All children primarily want to feel heard and understood. Another way to help your kids cope with you being less available is to make the most out of the time you have. Quality over quantity makes a difference. Car rides, ned time talks, and meal times are things which can stay more consistent and therefore give you the opportunity to be fully present with your kids.

Lastly, help your kids feel a sense of control with the kinds of choices you give them. Different choices are appropriate for different kids, and you may have to get creative at times. However, choices over how kids do certain things are a great way to empower them to take healthy control over what they can.

Kids of all ages can be extraordinarily resilient. Many kids even find their own ways of coping without needing a lot of assistance. The child’s mind is very powerful and has an amazing capacity to create strength, hope and resiliency when needed. Your kids will let you know what they need in one way or another. Be attuned to them and they will guide you.

For more information about Erin or CURE’s counseling program, contact Lisa Branch at 770-986-0035 or lisa@curechildhoodcancer.org.