The natural response for any parent when they first learn their child has cancer is to do anything possible to make them happy. It is, however, important to balance the desire to comfort with an understanding of what is in your child’s best interest. This is especially true when your child with cancer exhibits difficult behaviours.

Even as your child and the rest of the family are going through this exceedingly stressful time, it is crucial that you maintain your parental role. Give yourself time to accept the realities of your child’s medical diagnosis, but trust your instincts regarding the behaviours you want to maintain, and those that you are more willing to let go.

While you may be faced with many challenges – and those challenges will change over time – the best thing that you can actually do for your Child with Cancer and the rest of the family, including yourself, is to keep life as normal as possible for your children.

Dealing with Behaviour Problems

While you may feel that your child’s behaviour is getting out of hand and possibly even feel a bit overwhelmed what with the cancer itself and then all the behaviour problems on top of that, there are some ways in which you can deal with them:

Adapt to Treatment Patterns

Pay attention to your child’s sleep pattern and medications, and if you notice behavioural changes, discuss them with your child’s oncology team as they may be contributory factors.

For instance, a child on steroids may have mood swings and some sleep problems, and being able to anticipate that will help you understand when to have things ready to calm them down.

Expect Developmental Regression

Children under the stress of cancer often regress to previous behaviours or coping methods. An older child undergoing treatment may resent the fact they are suddenly more dependent on their parents, while a younger child may become more clingy and unwilling to socialise with peers.

These reactions are very normal; try to create a space to accommodate them and not be judgmental. Do not worry about maintaining the rigid developmental milestones you may previously have had for your child and rather try to encourage coping skills to help them feel better.

Focus on the Positive

It’s easy to respond to bad behaviour, but a healthier, more preventative approach is to emphasise and reinforce the positive things your child is doing.

If they are reluctant to go to bed for instance, remind them about the many nights they have been able to sleep independently – and tell them you know they can make it through the night.

Recognise how brave they are being during treatment and point out all the ways in which they are being strong.

Returning to School – Focus First on Peer Connections

Work with your child’s care team as well as their teacher and school administrators to make a back-to-school plan with modified educational goals. It is important for your child that they maintain school attendance as much as possible; if they can’t go for an entire day, arrange for them to go for just one or two hours or some other modified schedule.

Maintaining the appropriate developmental and social connection with school can often be more important initially than academic success. You can address schoolwork through tutoring, but the big issue early on should be on getting your child back on track socially with peers and the routine of school attendance.

Let Children Play a Part in Their Own Care

Hearing age-appropriate information about their cancer and treatment can help alleviate your child’s worries, accept the limitations of their diagnosis, and increase their capacity to connect with the normal parts of their lives.

Make Time for Siblings

Sometimes behavioural issues with siblings are rooted in the fact that the Child with Cancer is getting more attention than they are. Setting up a fun activity for your other child (or children) helps some of these feelings, as does involving siblings in the patient’s care.

The more siblings know, the less worried they are going to be about their sick brother or sister, which will result in far less behavioural disruption.

Pick Your Battles

Discuss and prioritise the behaviours you want to emphasise. Know that when you don’t prioritise certain behaviours, you’re going to have to live with the results. You may find that you can more easily accept a messy room, but you won’t tolerate rudeness and disrespectful backtalk, for instance.

In other words, you, your Child with Cancer and the rest of the family are already under enormous stress, so don’t sweat the small stuff!

Take Time for Parental Self-Care

Children react to parental stress, and so taking care of yourself and addressing your own stress has a direct effect on your child’s anxiety level and behaviour.

You need to ensure that you are getting enough to eat, enough sleep and also some time to just relax away from everyone – you cannot care for your child if you do not care for yourself first.

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