By Patty Kim - August 08, 2023
Jolene Rowe, manager of inpatient social work at Moffitt, has three important tips: preparation, information and support. These are also the keys to Moffitt’s Families First Program, which helps parents and their children adjust to changes when a parent has cancer. Social workers provide guidance on discussing cancer with children, counseling children who experience difficulties adjusting to a parent’s illness, offering peer support for parents and children, and more.
“Preparation, information and support not only can enable children and families to cope with the inevitable changes that occur when a parent has cancer, but that information can also help children adjust to any new situation that’s part of normal growth and development,” Rowe said.
Here’s how you can take advantage of these tips with the new school year.
Stressors can be good, such as a new school and new friends. But they can also be bad, such as a new cancer diagnosis in the family. It’s important to prepare children for these changes.
“As part of preparation, it’s important to recognize how important a routine is for children, especially younger ones. They do not have a global understanding of so many things, and their routine is a sense of world order, sense of security,” Rowe said. “It’s important for kids to know what their routine is, and if there are changes, parent should let them know.”
When a parent has cancer, prepare children for changes by talking about what’s going to be different in the household. Will they need a ride home with someone else? Will someone else need to prepare dinner because Mom and Dad will be late? Will there be less opportunity to do fun things as a family because of a hectic treatment schedule?
Let them know about specific changes to their routine. For example, tell them they’ll take the bus to school every day, but this Friday, I’ll pick you up because we’ll do something special after school. Maybe they can’t be involved in three sports because of the transportation needs, but instead they can pick one sport and get a ride with a friend.
To prepare for the first day of school, buy school supplies, look at the new schedule for the year, and start bedtimes and wakeup times a litter earlier. Take into account that children may be going to a new school, facing a new curriculum or taking challenging advanced placement classes. Outline expectations such as studying first before hanging out with friends or enjoying screentime.
Other tips to prepare:
- Sleep. Children need sufficient sleep to be successful in school. Set a consistent bedtime and try a calming pre-bedtime routine such as taking a bath, reading a book and avoiding electronics.
- Nutrition. Did you know that children who eat a nutritious breakfast function better? Try to include protein such as eggs. When packing a lunch, avoid sugar loaded sodas and choose water or low-fat dairy options instead.
- Backpack safety. Choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and a padded back. The backpack should not weigh more than 10% of your child’s body weight.
- Sun safety. Keep your kids protected from the dangers of the sun year-round. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen as part of their normal daily routine. Let them pick out a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.
- Homework. Create a consistent workspace that is quiet, without distractions and promotes study. Schedule enough time for homework where electronic distractions stay off. Supervise their computer and internet use.
Making sure children have information about what to expect is key for any situation.
When it comes to cancer, kids will draw conclusions about what’s happening, Rowe said. Their life experiences are limited. Take into account their age and share what’s appropriate. Discuss how their life will be impacted and how things will change, such as Mom is going through treatment, which is good, but it makes her tired.
“That information empowers children to better understand and worry less and be free to be kids,” Rowe said. “Kids need this to continue to grow and develop and be successful in school. That is their world.”
It’s also important to include kids in decisions that impact them. Give them the information and the opportunity to make a choice. For families dealing with cancer, everyone feels a loss of control. But if parents need help with responsibilities at home, ask the children who will take on which chores, giving them choices to make them feel included.
Give your kids the opportunity to choose elective courses, an afterschool activity or what to wear to school.
Other tips where information is critical:
- Keep track of important information. Write down details such as their locker combination, what time classes start and end, their homeroom and classroom numbers, teachers’ names, etc.
- Medical. Make sure your children have the required vaccines. Fill out emergency contact and health information forms, including allergies.
- Make a to-do list to stay organized. Include homework, chores, healthy habits, test prep, creative projects and goals.
Kids need support when they’re experiencing changes in growth and development, Rowe says. Make sure you give them the opportunity to voice their concerns and worries. Listen and reassure them that their reactions and feelings are normal.
If a parent is ill, kids will feel anxious. Giving them the opportunity to talk about it will help normalize their feelings. If they need extra support, offer that, as well.
It’s normal to feel anxious about a new school or to worry about making new friends. Be there to hear your children’s concerns.
Other tips to offer support:
- Talk to your children regularly about how they feel. Gauge your children’s thoughts on school, friends, teachers and new activities. Reading together is another great way to start a conversation.
- Include a note with your child’s snack or lunch. Let them know you’re thinking about them. It can even be a quick sketch or a joke.