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How Cancer May Affect Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood

Social and emotional development is important for young children. 

Babies and toddlers want to feel safe, cared for, understood, and loved. When they do, it can help them grow up to be positive, healthy adults.

When your baby or toddler is being treated for cancer, you may have some concerns about how it may affect your child’s development. You want to know how you can help your child.

What is Social and Emotional Development?

Social and emotional development is how children learn to express and manage their emotions and build healthy relationships with others. 

Social and emotional development lays the foundation for all other learning. Young children learn through relationships. Strong social and emotional skills are also a protective factor. They can lower the effects of stressful life events, such as having cancer. 

Parent and infant playing with blocks

Parents Are the Best Teachers

Social and emotional development starts with an open, close connection with parents or other main caregivers. Parents teach babies what to expect with relationships through their daily contact. Strong, secure relationships help kids grow socially and emotionally. They also help kids build resilience, the ability to recover from difficulties.

Many things affect these daily interactions. This includes situations related to the cancer experience. 

Relationships Build Our Brains

From conception to kindergarten, our brains develop faster than any other stage of life. Our early relationships can affect the structure of our brains. They help us make connections. They also shape learning and growth during the early years. Relationships are key for building:

  • Trust
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Conscience

Some Effects of Cancer Treatment on Social and Emotional Milestones 

A lot happens in a baby’s first years of emotional development. In relationships with their main caregivers, babies build attachment, trust, and security. Meeting these milestones can be harder with some things that go along with cancer treatment:

  • Pain
  • Unfamiliar situations and people
  • Change in normal routines
Mother holding infant

How Parents Can Help Their Baby

Babies are soothed in many ways, all of which include the help of a caring adult. You can help your baby feel more secure in stressful situations with:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Bottle-feeding
  • Using a pacifier
  • Holding your baby and gently rocking, swaying, or bouncing
  • Making a shushing noise
  • Using white noise
  • Singing to your baby
  • Swaddling your baby
  • Engaging in skin-to-skin care or kangaroo care if your child’s doctor says it is safe to do so.

Regular daily routines can help too. They make life consistent and predictable. Things like singing a certain song at bedtime or when getting dressed in the morning help your baby know what to expect and feel safe. You’ll also want to keep doing other things to help your baby’s development, like:

  • Talking (face-to-face interaction)
  • Reading out loud
  • Playing with toys

How Parents Can Help Their Toddler

Be sure kids know that they didn’t do, say, or think anything to cause their illness. This is a time of curiosity. So be ready with simple answers to questions.

Kids use play to gain skills like creativity, problem-solving, and copying. Research studies have found that, for kids with health conditions, play can:

  • Lower their fears about the hospital
  • Prevent anxiety
  • Affect how they perceive pain
  • Help them work through strong feelings

Toddlers also start to show independence. They have a desire for control. This can make treatment hard for parents. Offering choices can help, when possible. You might ask things such as:

  • “Do you want the pink bandage or the blue one?” 
  • “Which medicine do you want to take first?”
  • “Do you want to play a game or watch your movie after your treatment?”

Be sure to only offer choices that work for you. And limit the choices to 2 for toddlers. You’ll also want to begin to set consistent limits and enforce rules. These things add to a feeling of security for kids. That said, you want to choose your battles. For example, your toddler cannot hit another person—this is a limit worth setting. Yet, if they want to wear pajamas and slippers instead of the outfit you picked out, that’s likely OK. 

Toddlers also thrive emotionally when they are praised. This praise is most helpful when it is specific. For example, it is better to say, “Good job taking your medicine!” than “Good job!” Also, you want to praise your toddler, or tell your toddler what they are doing right, much more often than you correct them or set limits. 

Resilience Through Relationships

Children are resilient. They can bounce back from setbacks and thrive. As humans, we all have unhappy moments. But through caring and responsive relationships, babies and toddlers work through challenges. This supportive contact with parents and caregivers helps babies and toddlers manage their emotions. They also help young children learn about ways to self-calm and cope. 

These coping skills help kids rebound from setbacks and thrive again. You, too, can bounce back from challenges. Taking care of yourself helps build your resilience. It is another protective factor for families of young children.

Parents holding infant in a hospital setting

Parents -- Take Care of Yourself

Taking care of yourself is important. Your wellbeing affects your baby’s wellbeing. If you are not in a good place and your baby is not in a good place, those situations can feed off each other.  

  • Find someone who can listen to you without judgment. Your hospital may have support groups and/or peer mentoring groups.
  • Ask for help. People in your life want to be there for you. 
  • Take breaks. It’s OK to go for a cup of coffee or for a short walk sometimes.

What Else Can You Do to Support Your Child’s Development?

Just keep learning. You can read articles, talk with other parents, and lean on your health care team. Knowledge of child development is another protective factor for your family. 


Reviewed: April 2021