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Tips for Parents

One of the best ways to help you understand how your child sees and understands his or her world is by thinking about where your child is developmentally. Children of different ages make sense of the world around them, including the significance and meaning of illness, according to where they are in their own development. By understanding just where your own child is, you can better communicate with them and even anticipate what some of their unique concerns and sources of upset might be.

For all ages, it is of tremendous help to maintain daily schedules and routines as much as is possible. This fosters a greater sense of security and predictability that can be a source of significant comfort. Regularly set, protected family time is particularly important and can help support a tone of open communication in which your children can be more comfortable asking questions about your health and treatment. Children who have been doing well prior to a parent's illness tend to continue to do well. Children who have been having a more difficult time prior to a parent's illness may have more difficulty when faced with this additional challenge.

Infants and Toddlers (0-2 years)

  • prioritize having consistency in caregivers, at least a predictable schedule of caregivers
  • create a detailed schedule and instructions re. routines (favorite foods, bedtime routines, etc) for substitute caregivers to minimize disruptions
  • maximize opportunities for meaningful time with ill parent, even if it represents a change in routine: make a time for reading together or snuggling when parent feels best, etc

Preschoolers (3-6 years)

  • prioritize consistency in routines, limits, rules and expectations, especially across caregivers
  • inform other caregivers (preschool teachers, babysitters, etc) about the illness and treatment and your child’s understanding of it
  • provide repeated, clear, age-appropriate explanations of what is occurring, especially relating to what the child may be observing
  • listen for hints that your child may be misunderstanding the illness or treatment (in discussions, play, etc)
  • expect some return to less mature behavior, manage it with patience and consistent limits

School-Age Children (7-12 years)

  •  provide many opportunities for your child to ask questions and gather information related to the illness or treatment
  • provide opportunities to help at home
  • prioritize consistency in school and activities (sports, hobbies, etc)
  • identify a “point-person” at school to help protect routines while providing emotional support
  • respect a child’s established coping style (“talkers” vs. “do-ers”), but remind them to “never worry alone”
  • expect upset around unfairness; discussions should acknowledge unfairness and disappointment while providing reassurance and hope
  • talk about difficult feelings when opportunities arise
  • watch for signs of intense anxiety

Adolescents (13-18 years)

  • provide honest, accurate, timely information and updates about the diagnosis and treatment plans
  • do not be surprised by concerns that seem selfish (“how will I pay for college?”)
  • give permission for adolescents to speak about the illness with other trusted adults
  • clearly define any additional expectations of them during this time, limit these if at all possible
  • identify those adults that might help with important responsibilities and deadlines (SAT’s, college applications, etc): point-person at school, best friend’s parent, etc.
  • provide opportunities to discuss concerns about practical decisions (money, where to attend college, etc) that may be affected by the illness
  • watch carefully for increased risk-taking behavior and do not hesitate to refer for professional evaluation and support • watch carefully for signs that “moodiness” may actually be a mood disorder (deteriorating function at school, withdrawal from friends), and refer for appropriate treatment