Helping kids cope with cancer during holidays

During the holidays, the need to help kids understand cancer can be challenging.

In most families, holidays and special occasions like birthdays are times of excitement, tradition, and family togetherness. When a family must also face cancer during those times, the hectic but expected routine of these special days and occasions may well be challenged or changed. Special celebrations are extremely important to very young children, but they don’t have to be fancy or huge to make a preschooler happy.

In the wonderful little book, Moms Don’t Get Sick, 10-year old Ben is thinking about Christmas the first year of his mother’s treatment for breast cancer. He says, “Mom came home (from the hospital) right before Christmas. I was worried that the secret things that Mom does at Christmas wouldn’t happen. She just seemed to tired and not as excited about the holidays as she always had been before.”

Even when there is a holiday or special occasion, children still have needs in relation to a cancer diagnosis in the family.
- They need information about what is happening,
- They need an opportunity to express their concerns and emotions,
- They need preparation for changes or differences in their family,
- They need boundaries and rules that help all children feel secure.

The key to meeting these basic needs in children is maintaining  open channels of communication. Talk to your children about what is happening and, more important, get them to talk to you.

Beyond these basics, there are some specific things you can do to help make your holiday or special occasion a positive one, in spite of cancer, surgery and chemotherapy. Here are some hints:

- Set some reasonable expectations for yourself and your children. Let the children know that you will put up less outside lights, only a few friends can be invited to the birthday party and your family won’t be spending the night at the family reunion this year.

- For big holidays, plan the holiday calendar together. Sit down as a family and talk about all the holiday events. You can decide what you can do and what needs to be skipped this year. Keep the schedule updated; if a child comes home and tells you about the musical performance at school, ask him/her to add it to the calendar.

- Allow others to help. If there was ever a time to take friends up on offers of assistance, it is a holiday time or special family occasion. Buying the special wrapping paper or candles, making the princess birthday cake, even helping the children with their shopping, can all be done by a healthy family member or friend. This will allow you to enjoy more personal time with your children.

- Money can be very tight for families dealing with cancer. Discuss financial issues, if necessary. If you know gifts will be limited this year, let the children know in advance. Children can handle limitations in material things; love, togetherness and honesty are still the best presents of all. And lessons about budgeting money and handling financial stresses are some of the most important ones you can teach your children.

- Nap, rest and preserve your energy. To be emotionally available for your children, you must take care of yourself.

- Turn down the noise and the lights. If you want to reduce stress and keep your children calm, try to keep the music and light levels lower than usual. Young children especially can become over-stimulated and fussy when things are too loud and too bright.

Even with the best of intentions, the efforts to implement these suggestions may not go as planned. Someone may still have a melt-down, someone may be disappointed in a gift, someone may feel that the changes this year are not fair. Well, they are not! But you can still have a good celebration, by focusing on what you do have as a family. Your young child will enjoy simple, colorful  decorations and being the focus of your attention, even when the preparation is not elaborate. Be as adaptable and flexible as you can, and your family can still have fun and enjoy the holidays and special occasions. It is often those small moments that mean the most anyway.