In the Journals

Children in dysfunctional families less able to cope with parents’ cancer diagnosis

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July 10, 2014

Among children of cancer patients, general family dysfunction prior to diagnosis appears to be highly predictive of emotional distress and psychosocial issues after learning of their parent’s condition, according to study published online in Cancer.

To assess the prevalence and predictors of emotional and behavioral problems in children of cancer patients, researchers at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and the University Medical Center Münster in Germany evaluated 235 families with at least one one parent living with cancer. The families consisted of 402 parents and 324 children aged 11 to 21 years old.

The family members completed questionnaires that evaluated emotional and behavioral well-being. The investigators found that children of cancer patients reported higher average levels of emotional and behavioral problems. Additionally, the responses of both parents and children suggested that the most important predictor of emotional and behavioral issues was family dysfunction.

According to study researcher Birgit Möller, PhD, this finding suggests that children’s ability to cope with their parent’s disease may be influenced more by overall family functioning than by any other factor.

“This means that in view of a life-threatening disease in a parent, the level of family functioning predicts children’s behavioral and emotional symptoms more than any other tested variable, including illness-related factors,” Möller said in a press release.

Approximately 21% of all newly diagnosed cancer patients are aged between 25 and 54 years, and many are parents of dependent children who live in the same home. Due to this arrangement, Möller and colleagues recommended incorporating screening protocols for child mental health, family dysfunction and parental depression into the cancer care system.

Möller and her team have created a counseling program aimed at preventing emotional and mental health crises in children of cancer patients. The program, called the Children of Somatically Ill Parents program, emphasizes family communication, involvement of all family members, innovative problem solving, mutual support and assistance with parenting issues.

“Additional training of oncologists, interdisciplinary approaches, and family-based mental health liaison services are recommended to meet the needs of minor children and their families and to minimize negative long-term effects in children,” Möller said.

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