Iris Mini: Parenting Through Cancer Ages 2-5

A cancer diagnosis impacts the entire family. If you are struggling with how to balance parenting, medical needs, and how much to share with your child regarding cancer, you are not alone.

Making decisions around communication and support is a personal choice. Each child is different, and you are the expert on knowing your child and what they might need during this challenging time. Sharing age-appropriate information including how a parent’s treatment may impact the child directly can help minimize anxiety and fears.

Infants (aged 0-2) cannot understand cancer, but they are aware of stress, changes in caregivers, and transitions within the family. Infants will benefit from routine, comfort, and care from known caregivers with as much consistency as possible.

The chart below outlines how your toddler may understand cancer; age-specific responses and behaviors; and ways to support your young child.

Development & Understanding of Cancer

Child’s Response/ Behaviors

Tips for Supporting a Child

- Little to no understanding of diagnosis

- May revert to previous developmental stages (bed wetting, thumb sucking)

- Provide consistent caretaking; maintain a schedule

- Understands concrete things they can touch and see

- Play may include medical or sickness themes

- Give reassurance that your child’s needs will be taken care of

- Blames things on cause and effect

- May experience changes in sleeping habits

- Talk about the diagnosis with pictures, books, dolls, or stuffed animals

- May think they can catch cancer

- May experience behavioral changes such as aggression, hyperactivity, or increased expression of feelings

- Consider preparing child for physical and schedule changes using words or pictures

- Can be impacted by separation from caregiver and changes in routine

- May experience separation anxiety and need more reassurance and time with parent(s)

- Use language around cancer

- Are egocentric and as a result may believe they caused the diagnosis

- May become more fussy or cranky

- Reassure child they did not cause the illness and they cannot catch it

- May have awareness of and sensitivity to feelings that others around them show

- May experience behavioral challenges in school and with peers

- Continue typical limit-setting and behavioral expectations

- Have an awareness of parent’s physical appearance changes


- Ask teachers or adults in the child’s life about behavioral changes



- Provide more physical affection and connection to help them feel secure and loved

Consider a conversation with an Iris mental health therapist to explore ways to support your infant as it relates to your cancer treatment. Iris caregivers are available for specific needs, parenting questions, or support for you and your family.