cognitive development

How Does Cancer Affect A Child’s Social, Emotional, And Cognitive Development?

Having cancer touches so many different areas of a child’s life. For a lot of children, the mental experience has just as much of an impact as the physical experience.

While they’re still continuing to develop physically and mentally just like any other child, cancer can disrupt that timeline.

From social skills to schoolwork, here’s how cancer affects a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Social Development

Younger Kids Missing Out On The Preschool Experience

I think that a lot of the younger kids coping with cancer have less of a social deficit than our older school age and teen patients. I’ve noticed that they often just continue to be themselves. They want to have fun and don’t let cancer treatment get in their way.

Many younger patients who are toddlers, and preschool or early school age are still playing together and socializing in the treatment areas.

They still want to engage with one another, and with the volunteers and staff. Having fun and being a kid is still their main focus, and play is how they navigate their world.

Supporting Younger Kids’ Social Development

Child life specialists can encourage developmentally appropriate social behavior in younger hospitalized kids.

We do this by encouraging socialization in playgroups. Child life specialists will also coordinate small group activities, art projects, cooking, and game times to promote socialization, sharing, and taking instruction from another adult.

Social workers can also help with parent-to-parent support. That’s where they connect parents and kids that have similar diagnoses. Their shared experiences can be beneficial for these families.

Isolation In Older Kids And Teens

Socially—depending on the child’s personality—there can be some struggles in this area, especially in older school age kids and teens.

They may feel isolated from not spending as much time with friends. And they may worry about being accepted. It can be hard for them to have people see them looking sick, with no hair, and just not feeling like themselves.

That can be a real fear, worry, and struggle for older kids.

Supporting Older Kids’ And Teens’ Social Development

I think many teens are really wondering, “Is anybody else my age going through this? Could anyone else possibly understand what I’m going through?”

Having an opportunity to meet another child near their age who has a similar diagnosis or is going through something as challenging as they are can be very helpful. They may end up building some great friendships, too.

Emotional Development

Anxiety And Depression In Childhood Cancer Patients

I find that a fair amount of kids who are getting treatment for cancer struggle with depression, anxiety, and other fears.

Supporting Childhood Cancer Patients’ Emotional Development

As a healthcare team, this is something we need to be aware of from the beginning, so that kids don’t get too far into treatment without receiving an assessment or help.

Many of the kids who struggle with anxiety and depression can benefit from a behavioral health consultation. Help from a counselor can also support parents and offer suggestions for following through at home.


Cognitive Development

Keeping Younger Kids On Track With School

Some of the younger kids don’t get to go to preschool or kindergarten. The child life team or the hospital resource educator can provide age-appropriate resources to parents to help kids with skills like learning the alphabet, shapes, and colors.

It’s important to continue their cognitive development and help them be ready for school by filling in anything that they’re missing.

Loss Of Routine In Older Kids And Teens

Depending on when a diagnosis occurs in the school year and how long treatment lasts, older kids can miss quite a bit of school.

When they’re undergoing treatment, they are going to experience a lapse in their normal school routine. So, they’re going to get behind in their schoolwork.

Cognitive Late Effects Of Treatment

Another component is that certain chemotherapies and medications can have long-term effects that cause cognitive deficits.

You don’t always know right away if that’s going to happen, but it’s important for families to be aware that it could happen years later.

Supporting Older Kids’ And Teens’ Cognitive Development

Here at Children’s, the resource educator can assess what kinds of academic support services kids are eligible for and set up tutoring in the school system.

Our educator may have appointments with kids who are inpatient to provide additional assessments and tutoring, read books with them, and encourage them to continue their cognitive development.

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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