Chemotherapy, Kids and Mood Swings

By Les Friedman
CEO and Mikey’s dad

Chemotherapy, Kids and Mood Swings - be prepared.

When your child is about to begin chemotherapy, you may already know the possible side effects such as nausea, loss of appetite, and fatigue. But are you prepared for the mood swings and emotional changes that your child may experience during his treatment? Just like chemotherapy side effects that you can physically see, such as hair loss, mental health issues are also a very real and common effect for kids coping with cancer.

This abrupt uncharacteristic surge in irritability, angry outbursts, or even aggressive behavior can be really distressing for both you and your child.  All of a sudden, you might find that you are experiencing more conflict in your relationship. It might be hard for you to communicate with your child in the same way as you used to. As a matter of fact, over the course of a week, or even a day, he may exhibit a variety of negative behaviors.  In fact, from personal experience I can tell you that these episodes can be really hard to foresee. They can come at any point during treatment. And while usually only for a fleeting moment, you need to be ready and prepared for them.

What’s Going On With Your Child

So exactly what’s going on with your child? In the first place, think about all that he is trying to cope with.  It can be extremely overwhelming for children trying to deal with cancer treatment and their side effects. Add to that their trying to handle the normal stresses of everyday life. Many of these behaviors maybe purely emotional reactions. But, medications and treatments such as chemotherapy often influence these uncharacteristic behaviors. Cancer and its treatment can also affect a child’s hormones which impacts how he feels both physically and mentally.

Think of His Brain Like a Computer

Here’s another way of looking at this. To begin with, think of your child’s brain like a computer which sends and receives signals throughout his body. Similar to a computer, his brain controls all the systems that keep his body working. Furthermore, it processes all his thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. So, if his brain is affected by cancer or cancer treatment, he’s probably going to experience some personality changes. This form of cognitive change is commonly referred to as “chemo-brain.” Regardless of whether these changes are temporary or more long term, they are pretty scary to deal with.

When you learn that your child has cancer, your natural instinct as a parent is to do whatever you can to ease his pain and to make him happy. But, it’s really important to balance this innate desire to comfort with an understanding of what he’s going through physically and what’s in his best interest. This is particularly important when he exhibits challenging behaviors. In fact, the more that you understand what your child is going through, the more you as his parent can better cope with his behaviors. Before you react to what he is doing or saying, remember it’s “chemo brain” talking, not your child. The drugs, the treatment regimen and his emotions all play into causing these uncharacteristic behaviors.

What You Can Do

There are things that you can do to help bring the upheaval under control. Learning what triggers these twists and turns in his personality changes positions you to better respond to your child.

  1. Track your child’s mood changes with a journal. This will help you see patterns in his mood change enabling you to better predict and plan for them.
  2. When it happens, don’t immediately react to what your child is doing and saying. Collect your thoughts before you react. Remember that it’s the chemo brain and the drugs causing the effect.
  3. Stick to your daily plan but be ready to tweak it if your child throws you a curve.
  4. Head to treatment with whatever item or items comfort your child.
  5. Try relaxation techniques with your child such as mindfulness exercises.
  6. Pay attention to your child’s sleep pattern and what medications he’s taking. Ask his doctor how these may contribute to his behavioral changes. This insight enables you to better predict and be prepared for behavioral change outbursts.
  7. Choose your battles. Trust your instincts about the behaviors you want to maintain. Be willing to let go of the ones that are less important. Maybe you can accept a messy room, but you won’t tolerate rudeness and disrespectful backtalk.

Experiencing personality changes with chemotherapy or cancer, is very distressing for you and your child. The more you understand what he is going through the more you can cope and help him through it.