pediatric cancer

5 For 5: 5 Ways To Help Children Under 5 Cope With Pediatric Cancer

Cancer can be tough for anyone to cope with, but it can be especially difficult for kids. And when kids with pediatric cancer are very young—just a few years old—it can seem impossible.

Fortunately, there are some proven ways to make the experience easier for them to deal with. Here are 5 ways to help the under-5 crowd cope with pediatric cancer.

1. Explain In A Way She Will Understand.

When you have a child with cancer, your first instinct may be to shield her from the harsh realities of the condition. You may even be tempted to hide it completely, and simply tell her that she’s “just sick.”

However, it’s important to be honest with your child, even from a young age. This will help her understand cancer as she gets older, and it will also start the process of building a trusting relationship.

That doesn’t mean you have to tell her everything, or explain things in technical jargon that she won’t understand. Use simple language, like “You have some stuff inside you that shouldn’t be there, and we’re giving you medicine to make it go away.” Define words she will hear often, like “poke” or “port.”

If you can’t find the right words, you can ask a child life specialist to explain cancer using a doll to facilitate medical play and encourage positive coping. Or if your child is a bit on the older side, she might enjoy children’s books about cancer. Try:

  • “Chemo Girl: Saving The World One Treatment At A Time,” by Christina Richmond (Jones and Bartlett Publishers International)
  • “H is for Hair Fairy: An Alphabet of Encouragement and Insight for Kids (and Kids at Heart!) With Cancer,” by Kim Martin (Trafford Publishing)

2. Acknowledge And Calm His Fears.

It’s very important to address your child’s fears. According to the American Society for Clinical Oncology, a young child with cancer might fear that he’s going to be abandoned at the hospital, that he will be in pain, or that he caused his own cancer (e.g., because he behaved badly one day).

Pay attention to your child’s fears, and acknowledge that they’re real—even if his fears seem ridiculous to you. You know that a parent won’t leave a child with cancer stranded at the hospital, but that’s a very legitimate concern of a young child.

There isn’t one correct way to soothe a scared child, so experiment with a few different tactics. It may be holding your child in a comfort hold for a procedure, or coming up with a ritual, such as: “After your scan, I’ll give you a sticker.” Find what’s best for your child.

3. Make Her Familiar With The Staff.

If you’ve ever passed your smiling, giggling baby to her uncle she’s never met, chances are you’ve seen her switch to tears and screams within .02 seconds.

That’s because young children love familiar faces. They feel safe and comfortable, and they don’t trust, or know what to expect from, new people.

A child in the hospital for cancer treatment will be seeing a lot of new faces. Introductions should go smoothly: Our staff knows how to make them feel comfortable with jokes, games, and kid-friendly language.

But after the nurse or doctor has left the room, you might remind your child later: “Didn’t Dr. Smith have a funny bow tie?” or “I can’t wait for Mrs. Hogan to show you that special book she talked about.” This will help your child keep those new faces in his memory.

You can also bring a sense of familiarity to the hospital so she feels more at home. Simply bringing along her favorite teddy or blanket might be the key to making her feel calm and safe among the unfamiliarity of the hospital.

4. Work With Child Life Specialists.

Child life specialists are there to make your life easier, so don’t be afraid to turn to them for ideas.

We can help your child in many different ways. On any given day, I might explain surgery using a doll, teach breathing techniques to ease pain, help a child get his medicine down, or play games with a child to keep him calm and distracted.

Observing child life specialists also might give you creative ideas. For example, at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, our kids sometimes draw pictures to express how they’re feeling. Maybe at home, when she’s well enough, you could do the same thing with fingerpaints.

5. Don’t Forget The Little Delights.

Hospitals may involve medicine, noisy machines, and lots of new people coming and going. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also be fun.

At the hospital, she’ll have play rooms, arts and crafts, therapy pet visits, reading clubs, and other ways to stay entertained.

I’ve seen parents do all sorts of things, including:

  • Decorate the room for the holidays.
  • Have special “hospital toys” that are only played with at the hospital.
  • Give treats. While it’s important for all kids to have a nutritious diet, a little sweet treat now and then—especially if he’s lost his appetite—can make the hospital more enjoyable.
  • Listen to his favorite music and have sing-alongs.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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