[D]uring their child's treatment, parents may be under enormous physical,
emotional, financial, and existential stress.
Depression is very common and very treatable, and should be dealt with early.
Overindulgence is a very common behavior of parents of children with cancer.
Many parents...are able to ask for help from their friends and family when they
Common Behavioral Changes of Parents
The following excerpt is taken from Chapter
17 of Childhood Leukemia: A Guide for Families, Friends, and Caregivers, 3rd
Edition by Nancy Keene, copyright 2002 by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
For book orders/information, call (800) 998-9938. Permission is granted to
print and distribute this excerpt for noncommercial use as long as the
above source is included. The information in this article is meant to
educate and should not be used as an alternative for professional
It's impossible to talk about children's behavior without discussing parental
behavior. Children's development does not occur in a vacuum, but rather in the
context of their family. At different times during their child's treatment,
parents may be under enormous physical, emotional, financial, and existential
stress. The crisis can cause them to behave in ways of which they are not
Some of the problem behaviors mentioned by veteran parents follow.
As stated earlier, children feel safe when their parents are honest with them.
If the parents start to keep secrets from the child or "protect" her from bad
news, the child feels isolated and fearful. She thinks, "If mom and dad won't
tell me, it must be really bad," or, "Mom won't talk about it. I guess there's
nobody that I can tell about how scared I am."
Denial is a type of "unconscious" dishonesty. This occurs when parents say
things to children such as, "Everything will be just fine," or, "It won't hurt
a bit." This type of pretending just increases the distance between child and
parent, leaving children with no support. However horrible the truth, it seldom
is as terrifying to a child as a half-truth upon which his imagination builds.
Feeling sad or depressed may occur in parents of children with cancer. If you
are consistently experiencing any of the following symptoms, it would probably
be helpful to get professional help: changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping too
much, waking up frequently during the night, early morning awakening), appetite
disturbances (eating too little or too much), loss of sex drive, fatigue, panic
attacks, inability to experience pleasure, feelings of sadness and despair,
poor concentration, social withdrawal, feelings of worthlessness, suicidal
thoughts, or drug or alcohol abuse. Depression is very common and very
treatable, and should be dealt with early.
Find a counselor you click with. Stick with that person until you truly feel
some peace about your experiences and strength for dealing with the ongoing
stress of treatment or whatever else might come up. I regret that I toughed it
out and didn't recognize the depression I was experiencing for such a long
time. I think finding sources of support in a variety of ways at the earliest
moment possible can greatly mitigate long-term difficulties in coping.
Losing your temper excessively
All parents lose their temper sometimes. They lose their tempers with spouses,
healthy children, pets, even strangers. But it is especially painful when the
target of the anger is a very sick child. Abuse of spouses and children
increases at times when either or both spouses feel incompetent and powerless.
If you find yourself unable to control your temper, seek professional
I had my share of temper tantrums. The worst was when he was having his
radiation. I tried to make him eat because it would be so many hours before he
could have any more food. He always threw up all over himself and me, several
times, every morning. It seemed like we changed clothing at least three times
before we even got out of the house each day. I remember one day just screaming
at him, "Can't you even learn how to throw up? Can't you just bend over to
barf?" I really flunked mother of the year that day. I can't believe that I was
screaming at this sick little kid, who I love so much.
In the beginning, my two-year-old daughter was incredibly angry. She would have
massive temper tantrums, and I would just hold her and tell her that I wouldn't
let her hurt anybody. I would continue to hold her until she changed from angry
to sad. When she was on the dexamethasone, she would either be hugging me or
pinching, biting, or sucking my neck. It drove me crazy. Now, on maintenance,
she's not having as many fits, but she still pushes her sisters off swings or
the trampoline. She has a general lack of control. Sometimes, when I can't
stand it anymore, I swat her on the bottom, and then I feel really bad.
I had always taught my children that feeling anger was okay, but we had to make
good choices about what to do with it. Hitting other people or breaking things
was a bad choice; hitting pillows, running around outside, or listening to
music were good choices. But, as with everything else, they learned the most
from watching how I handled my anger, and during the hard months of treatment
my temper was short. When I found myself thinking of hitting them, I'd say, in
a very loud voice, "I'm afraid I'm going to hurt somebody so I'm going in my
room for a time-out." If my husband was home, I'd take a warm shower to calm
down; if he wasn't, I'd just sit on the bed and take as many deep breaths as it
took to stop feeling homicidal.
Unequal application of household rules
You will guarantee family problems if the ill child enjoys favored status while
the siblings must do extra chores. Granted, it is hard to know when is the
right time to insist that your ill child must resume making his bed or setting
the table, but it must be done. Siblings need to know from the very beginning
that any child in the family, if sick, will be excused from chores, but will
have do them again as soon as he is physically able.
Overindulgence of the ill child
Overindulgence is a very common behavior of parents of children with cancer.
I bought my daughter everything that I saw that was pretty and lovely. I kept
thinking that if she died she would die happy because she'd be surrounded by
all these beautiful things. Even when I couldn't really afford it, I kept
buying. I realize now that I was doing it to make me feel better, not her. She
needed cuddling and loving, not clothes and dolls.
One aspect of overindulgence that is quite common is the parent's reluctance to
teach the sick child life skills. After years of dealing with a physically weak
and sometimes emotionally demanding child, parents may forget to expect
Four days into Selah's diagnosis, we were doing anything to keep her happy. Our
sweet little four-year-old had turned into a demon child in that short time.
Luckily, my very dear friend took me outside into the hallway, pushed me
against the wall, and demanded to know exactly what I was doing. I just looked
at her and said "I have no idea." I just didn't want my daughter to die and
that was my only focus. She then told me I was giving my daughter no
boundaries, no behavior expectations, and she had no respect for anyone who
walked into the room. She was so right and I couldn't see it for fear that
Selah would die. Through my tears and our hugs, she assured me that the way we
were going, if she didn't die from leukemia, we were going to want to kill her
because of the monster we were creating. I am still so grateful that she wasn't
afraid to tell me what I needed to hear.
I realized that I had formed a habit of treating my child as if she was still
young and sick. I was still treating her like a three-year-old, and she was
seven. One day, when I was pouring her juice, I thought, "Why am I doing this?
She's seven. She needs to learn to make her own sandwiches and pour her own
drinks. She needs to be encouraged to grow up." Boy, it has been hard. But I've
stuck to my guns, and made other extended family members do it, too. I want her
to grow up to be an independent adult, not a demanding, overgrown kid.
Overprotection of sick child
For a child to feel normal, he needs to be treated as if he is normal. Ask the
doctor what changes in physical activity are necessary for safety, and do not
impose any additional restrictions that go beyond this on your child. Let the
child be involved in sports or neighborhood play, and even though it is hard,
stop yourself from constant reminders to be careful.
Not spending enough time with the sibling(s)
While acknowledging that there are only so many hours in a day, the parents
interviewed for this book felt the most guilt about the effect of the leukemia
on the siblings. They wished that they had asked family and friends to stay
with the sick child more often, allowing them to use more of their precious
time with the siblings. Many expressed pain that they didn't know how severely
affected the sibs had been.
We didn't have problems with our child with cancer, but his brother (six years
old) really suffered. He would get the flu and sob all night. He would scream
that he would have to go to the hospital and that he would die. He also had
behavior problems at school. I ended up quitting work because my son with
leukemia was having trouble making it through the entire school day, and his
brother needed some loving attention. Many of the sibling problems cleared up
with lots of one-on-one attention.
Using substance abuse to cope
Some parents find themselves turning to alcohol or drugs to help them cope. Not
only illegal drugs are abused; overuse of over-the-counter sleeping pills or
other medications also occurs. If you find yourself drinking so that your
behavior is affected or using drugs to get through the day or night, seek
Many parents find unexpected reserves of strength and are able to ask for help
from their friends and family when they need it. They realize that different
needs arise when there is a great stress to the family, and they alter their
expectations and parenting accordingly. These families usually had strong and
effective communication prior to the illness, and pull together as a unit to
deal with it.
The majority of families, however, have periods of calmness and other times
when nerves are frayed and tempers short. But usually families survive intact
and are often strengthened by the years of dealing with cancer.