2022 Back to School Guide–Helping Kids Face Cancer

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Resources and Research Blog
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Back to school season is a time of new beginnings for many families. School supplies shopping, starting new routines, and restarting fall sports often consumes to-do lists and schedules. But for families facing cancer, back to school may look a little unique. We’re here to guide you through.

No matter how cancer entered your life—personally as a patient or caregiver, or as a teacher—there’s many resources to help kids facing cancer. In this guide, we will unpack:

For Parents of Younger Children

Depending on the age(s) of your children, you may or may not realize that cancer is affecting them. It’s true: Kids are resilient. But, kids are also little sponges who can sense and soak up the energy surrounding them. Even if your kids are acting fine, it’s important to find ways to talk to them about what you’re facing.

Breaking the News

If back to school is colliding with a cancer diagnosis, your world is doubly stressful. What you tell the kids depends on a few factors: your current processing of your own diagnosis, the age of the kid(s), and what you feel they can handle. 

Each child is unique, and there’s no “right way” to talk about cancer with kids. 

For ways to explain cancer to your kids, here are some tools:

Books

Lists that offer suggestions for books that explain cancer to kids and help them process their own experience include:

Videos

As you create your game plan, check out this video and PDF resource by the Cancer Support Community: What Do I Tell the Kids? 

If you’d like to show a video to your children to explain cancer, here’s a couple options:

Living with Cancer

If you’re entering a new school year and cancer’s already been a part of your family’s life, you can take a few extra steps to set your kids up for success:

  • Notify their teachers and share the best way to communicate with you. 
  • Create a routine (as best as you can) for mornings, after school, and night.
  • Confirm your children’s emergency contacts and notify the school who may be coming around to help with them.
  • If your children need extra help through tutoring, look for those resources now or ask the school what support they can provide.
  • Sports tryouts and sign-ups can sneak up, now’s the time to begin asking when and where they happen. And don’t forget about school sports physical deadlines. Find out when they need to be submitted.

For Parents of Tweens/Teens

Like younger children, teens may or may not display behaviors that indicate cancer is affecting them. But, if cancer is affecting your world, it’s impacting them too. 

Your teen will probably be focused on school and their social life, but there are still ways to connect with them and support them. And, many of the tips and steps to take with younger children apply to tweens and teens too.

Learn

For insight into what it’s like to be a teen facing colorectal cancer, either personally or because a parent was diagnosed, check out Fight CRC’s Teen Colorectal Cancer Roundtable. The National Cancer Institute also offers a free booklet, “When Your Parent has Cancer; A Guide for Teens.”

Engage

While it’s good (and normal!) for teens to be consumed with their friends, the experience of a loved one facing cancer can also be life-changing. Situations like these often build empathy in our teens. Even if they act like they don’t want to be involved, powerful connections can form when you invite them in. 

Invite your teen into your cancer journey as much as you’re comfortable. This can look like:

  • Take them to events and appointments.
  • Buy them an awareness t-shirt and bracelets to pass out to their friends.
  • Show them how to fundraise for the cause.
  • Encourage them to share their story on social media or at school clubs, and explain how it’s great for raising awareness. 
  • Get involved in advocacy with them, bring them to Call-on Congress

Emotional Support for Kids and Teens Facing a Parent with Cancer

Regardless of their age(s), kids and teens need special care when a family faces cancer. Don’t forget to care for their emotional needs as you pack lunches, wash uniforms, and line up rides.

“I think it’s important to communicate with your children's teachers. Children don’t always know how to express themselves, and when they see you sick, hospitalized, or struggling–they may act out or struggle at school. Having open communication with educators and school is so important. And giving them an outlet to express themselves or support to check in is so important.”

–Julie Brown

Ask Open-Ended Questions

As much as you’re able, be present with your children and check in often. Ask open-ended questions to get them talking–questions without any wrong answers. Here are a couple of ideas: 

  • When you woke up today, what was the first thing you thought about?
  • What made you laugh today?
  • What’s something you noticed today that nobody else did?
  • What did you like about school today? What didn’t you like? 
  • If you could plan a trip for us right now, where would you take us?

Touch

Offer lots of hugs, snuggles, and extra time at bedtime (if your kids are younger). But don’t forget: Even teens can appreciate a hug from mom or dad. Offer soothing bubble baths and soft towels. Gift your kids with a new, fuzzy soft blanket or a robe. Go swimming. Line up a horseback riding adventure or visit a petting zoo. 

Soft, gentle touches are soothing and calming. They may help your children learn to regulate their complex emotions in non-threatening ways.

Change the Atmosphere

If your household is feeling heavy, find ways to generate fun. Even if you can’t leave the house or travel far, there are ways to change your entire family’s mindset and put smiles on everyone’s faces:

  • Play upbeat songs and dance around, or do karaoke.
  • Pop some popcorn, and break out the candy for movie night. 
  • Set up your favorite board game, or learn a new card game together.
  • Make homemade pizza, or have a fire pit and s’mores.
  • Take a walk around the neighborhood. 

If you’re in a slump and down in the dumps, take the initiative to find something fun. And if you personally cannot do it, call in people to help.

Trusted Adults

Your children may or may not be showing that they’re struggling to you; but continue to be present and available as often as you can. Also, kids thrive when other trusted adults, who are not their parents, are in their lives. These can be teachers, coaches, aunts/uncles, grandparents, youth leaders, neighbors, family friends, and counselors. These individuals can provide support, listening, and encouragement.

Pay attention to who your kids are comfortable talking with, and encourage the relationships. It can also help to let that person know how you’re doing, so they have context and background if your child does open up to them.

There are also resources that you can line up outside of the home that are ready to help your kids emotionally walk through cancer:

For Teachers–Supporting Your Students with a Parent with Cancer

If you’re a teacher with a student who is facing a parent with cancer at home, it’s important to remember that they’re going through trauma. Being a trauma-informed teacher is one of the biggest gifts you can give these students.

Common Behaviors

If you know your students are living with a parent with cancer at home, they may show some behaviors that are a trauma response. If you see a pattern of these, connect with the parent(s) or guardians, and/or ask the guidance counselor to help the student cope:

  • Silent or withdrawn, struggles to make eye contact.
  • Quick to anger, which can be vocalized or displayed by sometimes aggressive behavior.
  • Quick to cry or show sadness.
  • Very clingy and attached toward you or other teachers.
  • Poor eating habits, especially eating very little.
  • Sleepy and tired–they may be struggling to sleep at night and/or want to nap in class.
  • Lack of focus and concentration.
  • Depressed or down. 
  • Teens and tweens may show signs of eating disorders, self-harm, or act out sexually.

Get more information About Child Trauma

How to Help Families Facing Cancer

You’re in education because you want to help your students. We polled our community, and here’s what our parents told us they want their kids’ teachers to know:

  • Treat the students like they are no different than the others.
  • Have open communication with the parents, check-in regularly.
  • Give students an outlet to express themselves.
  • Line up support that checks in, and keep tabs on their emotional wellbeing. 
  • Be a bit more understanding if homework isn’t done. 

“As both a parent with cancer (10-years cancer free) and as a student (15 when my dad died) with a cancer parent, best advice is to treat them like they are no different than the other students! I got away with everything because the pity level was so extreme, and my son was given the easy path in school, while I was going through treatment. I had to remind his teachers that they were needed more than usual, and just give him as much normalcy as possible.”

–Tammy Fulton Myrick

The old adage that it “takes a village” to raise kids is especially true when it comes to parenting your kids when you have cancer. But you don’t have to do this alone. To chat with a fellow parent or find more resources to help guide you through this, contact us. 

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