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Supporting Your Child

Originally published on November 10, 2009
Most recently updated on April 10, 2013

Just like their parents, children often feel emotionally stressed in the face of serious illness. Children’s—especially teens’—anxiety levels may already be high from whatever suffering the tumor has caused, from the loss of independence and physical ability, to pain or the prospect of painful medical procedures. Although parents’ shock, disbelief, and self-indictment at the time of diagnosis can hardly be contained, witnessing or sensing their parents’ feelings can increase children’s anxiety even more.

Play is a wonderful outlet for children’s fears and anxieties. “Medical play” with stuffed animals or dolls can help children learn about their own procedures and surgeries as well as provide a healthy outlet for frustration, anger, and anxiety. Medical play or directed play can be used educationally to demonstrate exactly what is going to happen. Because a lot of your child’s anxiety currently is medical, you can use stories to direct his or her play and bring out what is on your child’s mind. This will also give you insight into your child’s worries, fears, and concerns. For example, a child may develop a unique relationship with a doll that has a brain tumor “just like I do.” Drawing pictures or playing with medical equipment (safe, not sharp or dangerous!) provided by the hospital staff can help relieve anxiety and fear and enable your child to express his or her understanding of what is happening. Providing a creative outlet for your child, of whatever age, can be very helpful; videos and books may help to explain things to older children. Ask the hospital child life specialist to guide you in selecting helpful tools.

It’s important to remember that your child has the same emotional needs as other growing children. At any age, he or she needs reassurance in the face of a brain tumor or cancer diagnosis and treatment. The suggestions that follow are appropriate for all but the youngest patients:

  • Reassure your child that a brain tumor is not caused by anything he or she did wrong and that neither the disease nor the treatment are meant as punishment.
  • Be honest with your child from the time of diagnosis; however, be sensitive to what your child can understand at his or her particular age. Be honest and realistic when explaining procedures and treatments. Discuss all changes in treatment with your child. Nobody, not even your child, expects you to know everything. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know.” Truth supports trust.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your child questions. Asking what he or she is thinking will not produce new fears but will provide an opportunity to express fears and worries that already exist. Discussions with your child about what he or she understands will give you a chance to clarify any unrealistic ideas and qualms your child has.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Listen without judging or rushing to reassure. Let your child know that it’s all right to feel sad and cry. Encourage your other children to talk openly about their feelings. Family discussions are a good way to reduce anxiety and make it possible for family members to help each other.
  • Let your child exert some control so long as it doesn’t jeopardize health or interfere with treatment. Giving a child choices will alleviate some anxiety; it will also allow him or her to grow in spite of obstacles.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child’s behavior changes. He or she may be having trouble expressing feelings or may be afraid or unwilling to upset you.
  • Set limits! During this period, your child may challenge whatever limits you try to set. Although a tendency to let him or her bend the rules is natural, leniency may actually make a child more anxious and imagine that things are worse than they actually are.
  • Be sensitive to the reality that young patients, just like adult patients, have their good and bad days.
  • Remember that members of your child’s health care team are available to you and your family to answer any questions and provide support. Sometimes they are very busy, so you must seek them out.
  • Consider making arrangements for your child to talk with a hospital social worker or psychologist without your being present. Even young children try to protect their parents from their fears.
  • Young children tend to be primarily concerned about separation from their parents. Reassure them every time you leave that you love them and will be back as soon as you can. If you know what time that will be, say so.
  • Encourage your child to keep in touch with friends and classmates while absent from school. It’s also important that your child go back to school as soon as possible. This delivers an important message: “Despite the illness, I’m still a normal child with outside friends, interests, and responsibilities.”
  • Despite everything that’s going on, your child is still the same lovable person you were raising before the tumor developed. The two of you need time every day to love and enjoy each other.

Parents often dismiss their own health needs, both physical and mental. It’s extremely important to take care of yourself if you plan to be able to fully care for your child. The hospital social worker is available to discuss how you are feeling and to provide support as well as community referrals.


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