School, Social Life, Self-Assurance: Helping Your Child Regain What Childhood Cancer Has Taken Away

When your son or daughter is battling childhood cancer, the physical effects can be obvious—fatigue, nausea, weight loss. But there also can be mental, emotional, and even social effects that might stay hidden, or come out when you least expect them.

For example, you might feel baffled when your 3-year-old bursts into tears when she sees another child pick up a toy she was playing with 15 minutes ago. What happened? Possibly, she’s been away from playgroups for so long that she’s forgotten some things she learned, like taking turns.

Or you might wonder why your teenager has given up on doing his homework, and refuses to see his friends. Is this just a teenage phase? Or does his battle with cancer have something to do with it? Maybe both.

For every child, the struggle is different. But at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, we’ve seen some fairly common issues arise and have developed some strategies to help children through the hard times. Here are some steps we take to help—and how you can help, too.

1. Friends Forever: Helping A Child Keep Up Her Social Skills During Childhood Cancer

For Younger Children:

Cancer treatment can keep toddlers and preschoolers in the hospital for prolonged stretches when they otherwise might be developing social skills.

What We Do: At Children’s, we encourage kids to join playgroups, do art projects together, attend hospital activities, and just have fun. It’s a great way to help them build up their sense of teamwork, sharing, taking turns, and other critical social skills they’ll need as they grow.

What You Can Do: Arrange playdates at home when your child is well enough and the doctor says it’s okay. Consider keeping a daily schedule for your child/family. Children this age thrive on routine and also having boundaries. Also, if you get medical consent, consider preschool, young kids’ sports leagues, or other social activities for your child.

For Older Children:

School-age kids and teenagers might feel self-conscious about their bodies (e.g., hair and weight loss) and start avoiding their friends. Or they might just fear they’ll be rejected because of their disease.

What We Do: We encourage our hospitalized kids to meet each other, in our recreation area, for video games or other social activities.

What You Can Do: Encourage your child to keep in touch with his friends from home via phone and computer. Remind him that his true friends like him for who he is, regardless of his condition. News about classmates, new videos, and the latest music can keep your child tethered in the “real world” and help him realize he’s still part of a group that cares about him.

2. Back To School … Or Not: Some Learning Issues Your Child Might Face

For Younger Children:

Toddlers and preschoolers might completely miss preschool or kindergarten when they’re hospitalized with childhood cancer. Or they might be away from school for long stretches and forget what they’ve learned.

What We Do: Our child life team or hospital resource educator can incorporate learning into playtime. Staff can initiate activities about the alphabet, shapes, numbers, and much more. We make learning fun!

What You Can Do: Keep it up at home! Sing, draw, paint, play with letter magnets on the fridge…the sky’s the limit. Check out some cool learning activities at

For Older Children:

Middle-schoolers and teenagers also can miss long spans of school, fall behind in their schoolwork, and feel discouraged because they’re not keeping up with their peers. Cancer or its treatment can also impair their cognitive (mental) skills and make it harder for them to concentrate or learn.

What We Do: At your request, and with the doctor’s approval, our resource coordinator can work with your child’s teachers to develop a learning plan just for your child. We’ll work with the teacher to adjust her homework assignments, and can be a resource to her as she completes her work while hospitalized.

What You Can Do: Communicate with your child’s teacher, guidance counselor, and school nurse about what’s happening. Keep tabs on your child’s homework, and guide her to remain positive and encouraged..

3. It’s What’s Inside That Counts: Emotional Challenges That Can Arise In Cancer Treatment

In Both Older And Younger Children:

All kids with cancer can experience anxiety, fear, and depression. Their thoughts and feelings will be connected to their age. For example, younger children might fear being separated from parents during tests and procedures, while older children might fear rejection from their peers.

What We Do—And You Can Do, Too: Reassure your child that mom and dad will always be there, and remind him of how loved and unique he is. If he’s acting out in destructive ways, don’t be afraid to ask his medical care team about seeking a behavioral health consultation. Counseling can help kids learn to cope with their fears, relax, and look forward to their future.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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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