sense of control

4 Ways To Give Your Child With Cancer A Sense Of Control Over His Life

Today’s post features guest author Sean Akers, PsyD, a licensed clinical pediatric psychologist here at Children’s.

It’s hard to live life to its fullest when you constantly feel like you don’t have a sense of control. This is especially true for kids with cancer, who often feel as if they have no control over what’s happening to their bodies, what they want to do, or where they want to go.  

This is something not to take lightly. Giving your child a sense of control can make it easier for him to cope with cancer and have a higher quality of life.

Here are 4 ways to help your child regain control.

1. Explain

It’s difficult to feel in control when you don’t know what’s happening, and the same goes for children. Simply learning about cancer, how it affects everyday life, and how it can be treated might be key to restoring control.

Just how much to tell a child depends on his age and comprehension levels.

For example, young children (about ages 3 to 7) sometimes feel as if they have done something wrong, and have caused their own cancer. They may also see cancer as a germ, and worry about passing it on to their friends. For kids at this age, explaining that we don’t know what causes cancer—and that it’s definitely not contagious—might be what they need to hear.

Teenagers often want to know the nitty-gritty—what cancer is doing to the body, why they’re losing hair, if they will be able to “just be a teenager,” etc. I recommend explaining cancer using correct terms, and being as honest as possible. This will build trust between you and your teen, which is very important for control.

2. Let Kids Make Decisions

When a child has cancer—especially when she has to stay in the hospital—she might feel like all of her control is being taken away. One way to give her a feeling of control is to allow her to make simple choices that give her some semblance of control.

Just be careful about the choices you give. I have seen parents ask, “Will you take your medicine?” You want to avoid that, because usually the child will say “no,” but you’re going to make them take it anyway.

Instead, give her options when either choice is acceptable. Ask questions like, “Would you like to take the pink medicine before the purple medicine? Take your blood pressure before your temperature? Play BINGO or take a walk?”

Once a child is older, she might want to be involved in medical decision-making. This isn’t always possible—if your child doesn’t want a treatment because it’s painful or inconvenient, the final decision might not fall on her. However, allow her to sit in on meetings with the physician, and let her make her voice heard.

Letting her be part of the decision-making process has long-term benefits in addition to gaining a sense of control.

A 2009 study from the journal Family Health Systems found that collaboration between young patients and parents provides kids with the tools they need for making effective decisions about their illness as they get older. It encourages them to come forward if they notice symptoms, and strengthens the parent/child relationship.

3. A Sense Of Normalcy—Routine

It’s natural to try to compensate for lack of control by letting the rules slide. And while it’s okay occasionally to allow the extra half-hour of television, or the second scoop of ice cream, straying too much from a normal routine can actually give your child a lower sense of control.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children thrive on routines. They do best when routines are consistent, regular, and predictable. It gives them a sense of order.

That means holding your child to his bedtime, using appropriate discipline, and, if he’s physically able, having him do his usual household chores. It also means not excusing bad behavior. It’s okay to be a little lenient—your child is going through a lot of physical and emotional stress.

You can let him get away with the occasional tantrum. But don’t let him get away with disrespectful behavior that you normally wouldn’t tolerate. If he doesn’t have consequences, he might continue his bad behavior, even after cancer treatment.

4. Help Your Child Practice Mindfulness

Cancer takes its toll both emotionally and physically. According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer patients might experience stress and anxiety.

This can lead to physical symptoms, like rapid heartbeat, quick breathing, nausea, and feelings of panic, says the US National Library of Medicine. And unfortunately, these symptoms can make a child feel physically out of control.

Practicing meditation techniques is a good way to help your child regain that physical control.

The AAP explains that meditation has many benefits for children:

Consider teaching your child yoga, tai chi, deep breathing exercises, or other meditation techniques to keep her calm and in control.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jill Beck
I've been an oncologist since 2010. With pediatric oncology, you get continuity of care with families—so you care for children when they're really sick and see them get better.

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