Pediatric cancer: What you can do to help children cope

A diagnosis of pediatric cancer can be confusing and scary for children and their siblings. Here are some tips from the American Cancer Society on how parents can help kids cope.

Supporting children with cancer

For little ones up to age 3:

  • Stay with children during tests and distract them with toys.
  • Cuddle them often and comfort them with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.
  • Try to stick with their regular meal and naptime schedules and make time for play.
  • Decorate their hospital room to make it bright and colorful.

For those ages 3 to 5:

  • Provide simple explanations of what’s happening to them and check in with them regularly to see how much they understand.
  • Encourage children to express their emotions through talking, drawing and role playing with dolls.
  • Stick to meal and naptime schedules and make time for play and visits from family.
  • Reward good behavior during tests and procedures.

For children ages 6 to 12:

  • Explain their diagnosis and treatment plan and include them in talks with their doctor.
  • Answer their questions honestly and with the help of their care team, if needed.
  • Encourage them to express their feelings.
  • Console children who are missing school and help them stay in touch with classmates

For teens ages 13 to 18:

  • Include them in all discussions about diagnosis and treatment and encourage them to ask questions.
  • Talk to them about normal emotional reactions to their diagnosis, encourage them to express their feelings and empathize with them.
  • Encourage them to share their diagnosis with friends and to stay in touch with them.
  • Help them connect with other teens their age who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Supporting siblings

For siblings up to age 3:

  • Arrange childcare with a trusted family member or adult who will help kids stick to daily routines.
  • Video chat so your children can see and talk with you often, even when you’re at the hospital.
  • Record lullabies, stories and messages for when you can’t be home.
  • Remind toddlers that you’ll be home soon.

For children ages 3 to 5:

  • Give siblings a simple explanation that their brother or sister is sick and doctors are helping.
  • Provide comfort and reassurance about your absence when attending doctor’s appointments.
  • Arrange for trusted childcare and stick to daily schedules.
  • Be alert for changes in behavior and reach out to the cancer care team with any concerns.

For those ages 6 to 12:

  • Let siblings tour the cancer center, meet the care team and ask questions.
  • Give them information about diagnosis and treatment.
  • Answer all questions honestly, with the help from the cancer care team, if needed.
  • Make sure they stay engaged in school and encourage them to have fun despite illness in the family.

For teens ages 13 to 18:

  • Update them about treatment and answer all questions honestly.
  • Reassure them that sharing their emotions is healthy.
  • Try to keep daily life at home as normal as possible and help them stay involved in school.
  • Don’t overload them with caregiving duties.

Take advantage of UCLA Health support services

UCLA Health provides a variety of support services for children of all ages, including:

  • Child life/child development
  • School reintegration
  • Clinical social work services

For more information, visit Family Support in the Division of Pediatric Hematology Oncology at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.


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