Parents of Children with Cancer Prone to PTSD

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, or relapses from remission, a parent is more susceptible to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress than when the child is healthy. Because the parent is the one responsible for making critical treatment decisions, the emotional impairment caused by the symptoms may interfere with executive functioning and put those lifesaving decisions at risk. “Therefore, it is important to understand PTSS and other symptoms of distress in parents near the time of a child or adolescent’s diagnosis when parents are making important treatment decisions and helping their children cope,” said Madeleine J. Dunn of Vanderbilt University. Dunn was the lead author of a recent study that examined 195 children between the ages of 5 and 17, with recent occurrences or reoccurrences of cancer. Along with her colleagues, Dunn screened the children’s families for symptoms of PTSD using the Impact of Event Scale-Revised, and evaluated them for anxiety and depression for six months following the onset of the cancer.

The researchers found that 30% of the fathers and 41% of the mothers all showed symptoms of PTSD. But the fathers’ symptoms were more extreme when their children were undergoing treatment for a re-occurrence of a previously treated cancer. Dunn said, “These findings suggest that a substantial portion of families with a child or adolescent being treated for cancer, including both mothers and fathers, may be in need of supportive mental health services within the first 6 months after the child’s diagnosis.” Dunn feels the evidence emphasizes the importance of making available more psychosocial services for parents facing serious illnesses with their children. “Mothers and fathers recruited from the same families reported comparable levels of PTSS, depressive, and anxiety symptoms.” Dunn added, “These results suggest that clinicians should be attentive to the needs of both parents when providing supportive care to families.”

Dunn, M. J., Rodriguez, E. M., Barnwell, A. S., Grossenbacher, J. C., Vannatta, K., Gerhardt, C. A., & Compas, B. E. (2011, September 26). Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Parents of Children With Cancer Within Six Months of Diagnosis. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025545

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Caroline


    October 14th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    It is important to remember that for parents who are seeing their child face life with cancer this has to be one of the hardest things that they will ever do. They are constantly on a high state of alert, taking care of the child, researching the best treatments that money can buy. And you know that all of the decisions that they are forced to make for the child has to take a toll on them. Not to mention just seeing your child in such pain, and probably that along with the fear, is enough to induce all kinds of anxiety in a parent.

  • rene


    October 15th, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    This is great info and all, but don’t you think that maybe some of these parents exhibited signs of this or a tendency toward this before the child got sick? And that only now is it exhibiting itself?



    October 16th, 2011 at 4:52 AM

    It can be horrible to have a child diagnosed with a major disorder like this. It happened to a cousin and he and his wife ended up separating due to all the stress and other factors that were present during the illness of their son and his passing away afterwards. It hurts to see a family destroyed like this. We need better awareness about these things if we are to be able to take them in our stride and remain strong along with the family.

  • Allan Carey

    Allan Carey

    October 16th, 2011 at 11:15 PM

    How any parents could watch their child suffer from cancer and not have a severe reaction like PTSD to that, I’ll never know. It’s hard to witness the effects of cancer and uncertainty that comes with the diagnosis in an adult, let alone a child. As if those poor parents don’t have enough on their plate to handle! Bless them.

  • Heather Sykes

    Heather Sykes

    October 18th, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    I’m dismayed that supportive help isn’t automatically made available to the parents and the need has to be highlighted. How can they not be affected badly by such a sad turn of events? I know I would be devastated if that happened to one of my children. I definitely couldn’t get through it on my own without professional help.

  • ElliotTimmons


    October 18th, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    @rene- what are you talking about? Unless the parents have been in an extremely traumatic situation before that, like a warzone or a natural disaster-and it’s highly unlikely that such a high proportion of parents had-no they wouldn’t have exhibited anything of the sort.

    And what difference would it make anyway? If you’re attempting make a point, let’s hear it.

  • dawnchristenson


    October 19th, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    It’s articles like these that remind you to count your blessings. It makes me tear up just to imagine my children having cancer. I’m lucky to have two very healthy, beautiful daughters. They say God won’t give you any more than you can handle but sometimes life seems to treat some families very unfairly. That would shake my faith for sure.

  • p.c.g


    October 19th, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    Let’s imagine the scenario. My child is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease that costs a king’s ransom to treat and/or cure, and there’s always the possibility they might not live. Of course I would be suffering from extreme stress! Very few events will affect a parent more than knowing their own children are in danger of losing their lives. Why is this a surprise? It’s commonsense.

  • elizabeth boyce

    elizabeth boyce

    October 19th, 2011 at 1:32 PM

    Getting stressed out like that is NOT going to help your child. You need to do your very best to keep yourself in a good mood and stay optimistic or else they’ll end up thinking that it’s their fault that you’re upset, and what is that going to do about their mental state? Stress makes you both more susceptible to illness.

    Think, people. At the very minimum don’t show it in front of them and talk to a professional about how to manage it.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on