Helping Children Understand Cancer: Different Ages

Children have different needs and different reactions to stress at various ages.  By keeping in mind the developmental level of your child, you can select the types of interventions that will be most effective in helping children understand cancer in the family.  Below is a brief outline of the common reactions to stress and confusion for children of different ages, followed by general ideas to minimize these problematic responses.  Remember, not all children fit smoothly into their age categories so trust your instincts when it comes to helping your child.  The reactions build from one age to another, so anything that is typical for a younger child may come up again as a child develops.

Infants (birth-1½)
Reactions to stress:
Disturbance in eating and sleeping
Upset, fearful behavior
Inability to be comforted

How to help:
Keep routines consistent
Lower levels of stimulation (noise, light, etc)
Don’t change caregivers unless absolutely necessary

Toddlers (1½ -3)
Reactions to stress:
Return to security behaviors, like thumb sucking
Loss of previously gained skills
“Meltdowns”, temper tantrums

How to help:
Consistent schedules, like bedtime Give the child some choices or opportunities for control Distract from things that trigger the stress

Preschoolers (3-6)
Reactions to stress:
Nightmares and other nighttime disturbances
Clingy, dependent behavior
Being “too good”

How to help:
Lots of opportunities to play out worries
Help child to identify feelings
Provide simple explanations for unfamiliar events

School-agers (6-12)
Reactions to stress:
Worry and sadness
Physical complaints
Anger and lack of cooperation
Problems at school
Problems with friends
Withdrawal and isolation

How to help:
Provide accurate information
Give reassurance about child’s health
Maintain clear rules and expectations

Adolescents (12-18)
Reactions to stress:
Unusual hostility and defiance
Extreme and unpredictable mood changes
Avoidance of friends and normal activities
Problems with substance use, like alcohol

How to help:
Provide privacy
Treat with respect as an emerging adult
Give complete information, at an adult level
Encourage strong peer relationships