Helping school-age children cope with tests and treatment (6 to 12 years)

School-age children (6 to 12 years) are usually willing to cooperate because they understand cause and effect (for example, taking medicines and doing what doctors tell them will help them get better). They also take pride in doing most things by themselves. They have a good sense of time, which can help you prepare them a little while before tests or treatment. The older the child, the earlier you can begin preparation.

Before tests or treatment

Parents and caregivers can help children by preparing them and providing support. It is important to let school-age children be part of discussions and make as many decisions as possible. Parents and caregivers can help to prepare their child by trying the following:

  • Explain the disease, test or treatment in language your child understands, using plain words. When a child is worried or scared, their attention span may be shorter. Try explaining the test or treatment in several sessions, limiting explanations to 10 minutes each.
  • Use pictures, books or videos, as well as play and toys or dolls, to help explain a test or treatment.
  • Answer all questions honestly and in language your child understands. Try to listen for unasked questions. Make sure your child understands that it’s no one’s fault that they are sick.
  • Make sure that your child understands the body part involved and that the test or treatment will only be done in that area.
  • Describe what your child will see, hear, feel and even taste, and what, if anything, may happen afterward and how long these effects may last.
  • Encourage your child to talk about any feelings that they have regarding the test or treatment.
  • Try to describe how the test will feel rather than saying something will hurt. Let them know that it is OK to cry or verbally express any pain.
  • Help your child practise the positions or movements that they may need to do during the test or treatment.
  • Stress the benefits of the test or treatment and talk about things that the child may enjoy afterward.
  • Ask your child questions to find out how involved they want to be in their care. Some children want to take part in conversations with the healthcare team while others don’t. Some children change their minds during treatment as they get more used to being in the hospital.
  • Talk to your child about how they are handling tests or treatments and if there is anything they want to try to help them feel more comfortable. For example, some children want to be distracted during treatments and procedures while others want to know exactly what is going on.

During tests or treatment

You know your child’s behaviour and expressions, so you can help by watching for any signs of fear, discomfort or pain. Children may cry even if they are prepared for a procedure.

The healthcare team will do what they can to make sure your child is safe and comfortable. This may include using medicines to calm your child and reduce pain. They will watch your child for any problems and will use different machines to monitor your child’s body functions (such as heart rate and breathing). In some cases, they may need to restrain a child, but this shouldn’t last very long.

Some tips to help your child cope during tests or treatment include:

  • Let your child play with safe medical supplies, such as a stethoscope or blood pressure cuff.
  • Keep your child involved and give your child jobs to do. For example, involve them in keeping their room tidy, choosing meals or in taking part in their medical care.
  • Encourage your child to try counting, deep breathing, thinking pleasant thoughts and talking about them or holding your hands to help them stay calm.
  • Touch your child to help reduce pain or anxiety. Hold their hands or rest your hand on their shoulder.
  • Allow school-age children to make choices whenever possible, but do not offer choices when no choices exist. For example, your child may be able to choose the flavour of an anesthetic, which arm to use for an IV or whether to sit or lie down for a test.
  • Let your child practise or role-play things that are new and scary.
  • Let your child go to school or resume school work and activities as soon as possible.
  • Help your child keep in touch with friends. Let friends visit when your child feels well. Encourage your child to send notes, phone, email, text or connect by social media.
  • Try to arrange for daily physical activity if possible.
  • Don’t forget to have fun when you can and laugh about things when possible. Humour can be a great distraction.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Children Diagnosed with Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2012.
  • CancerNet. Preparing Your Child for Medical Procedures. American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2011.
  • Kline, N. E . Patient and Familiy Education. Kline, N. E. (Ed.). Essentials of Pediatric Oncology Nursing: A Core Curriculum. 2nd ed. Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses; 2004: VIII: 230-238.
  • National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. Family Handbook for Children with Cancer (Curesearch). 2nd ed. Bethesda, MD: 2012.
  • U. S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health . School age test or procedure preparation. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 2012.
  • WebMD. Pediatric Preparation for Medical Tests - Preparing Your Child for a Medical Test. Healthwise, Incorporated;
  • Wilson, K . Supportive Care. Kline, N. E. (Ed.). Essentials of Pediatric Oncology Nursing: A Core Curriculum. 2nd ed. Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses; 2004: VI: 170-190.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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