Helping Teens to Cope with Your Cancer

sad teenage girl listening to parentTed has lymphoma. He has had several months of chemotherapy. He and Shelly have two children—14-year-old Kelsie and 16-year-old Todd. He and Shelly are worried because when they try to ask Kelsie and Todd about how they are doing in regards to Ted’s cancer, the kids refuse to talk about it. Shelly is surprised because she and Kelsie have been pretty close until recently. Todd never talks much about anything anyway, but prior to Ted’s illness they played a lot of basketball together.

When Ted was diagnosed, he and Shelly sat down with Kelsie and Todd and shared everything the doctors told them. They gave the kids an opportunity to ask questions, and answered them truthfully. They have continued to share information throughout Ted’s treatment and have let Kelsie and Todd know they are always available to answer questions, and that they will always tell them the truth. Why is this important? If your teen finds out later that you have not been forthcoming or have lied to them, you will lose their trust; it will be difficult to gain it back. They will also feel hurt and angry that you didn’t think they were mature enough to handle the truth. Thus, even though it may seem like they don’t want to hear what is going on, it is imperative that you keep them updated along the way, with both good news and bad.

Additionally, teens are tackling developmental tasks that can make family life challenging, even without cancer. According to the Raising Teens Project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Work-Life Center, there are 10 tasks of adolescent development. Tasks that are relevant to Ted’s family include:

  • Forming friendships that are mutually close and supportive; peer relationships play powerful roles in providing connection and support in a teen’s life.
  • Developing and applying new perspectives on relationships (learning to put themselves in another person’s shoes; being able to see their own and another person’s perspective at the same time).
  • Developing and applying new coping skills in areas such as problem solving, decision making, and conflict resolution.
  • Understanding and expressing more complex emotional experiences.
  • Developing an identity that reflects both a sense of individuality and a connection to parents.
  • Meeting the demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities.
  • Renegotiating relationships with parents or adults in parenting roles; transitioning the relationship to allow for increasing autonomy while maintaining connection.

Thus, cancer in a parent can present a real struggle for teens. They may want to be close to their parent to offer support or be supported, yet because of their developmental tasks they may find themselves pulling away. This is just one source of conflict. It may occur to them for the first time that their parents will not live forever, and that their presence should not be taken for granted. This realization can then lead to guilt regarding how the teen is treating his or her parents/siblings, and the feeling that they should be nicer all the time (which we all know is unrealistic). Guilt may lead to resentment about why their parent had to get cancer—why couldn’t it have been someone else’s family? Plus, adolescents, especially early adolescents, are desperate to fit in with the crowd. Having a parent with cancer not only makes one stand out, it can be embarrassing for a teen. They are the center of their universe and want attention drawn to them only as they see fit. As a result, they may not even share with their friends that a parent has cancer because they don’t want people to feel sorry for them or view them differently. Typically, though, they will share the information with at least one or two close friends.

It’s also important to remember that a teen’s timeline for when things need to be done may be different than yours. You may feel a strong need to talk about recent information from the oncologist with them, while they may be in the middle of studying for an exam, working out, spending time with friends, etc. As little control as you have over the cancer in your family, teens have even less. Therefore, it’s crucial to let them have control wherever it is possible. This shows that you respect their needs and most likely will result in them being more likely to respect yours (i.e., comply with your requests).

In closing, teens are learning to find their place in the world. Having a parent with cancer is a tremendous challenge for them to navigate during that process. They need to know you are always available, but they also need some room to try to cope with things in their own way. As long as their coping skills seem healthy (i.e., they aren’t coping by engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking, drugs, unsafe sex, speeding) and they are doing well at home, in school, and with friends, you don’t need to worry as much if they aren’t confiding in you.

Please leave a reply with any topics you would like me to address in future posts.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, Cancer Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • sunshine

    January 8th, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    I made the huge mistake of talking to my daughter about having melanoma before really knowing what I should say to her. I wasn’t too composed about it and therfore that really left nowhere for her to go with her won feelings about it. I didn’t have the answers or the composure that she needed me to have and if I had to do it all over again I would have waited until I had a little more time to digest the news so that I could be a little better balanced for sharing the news with her. At the time my reasoning was that I didn’t feel like it was right to withhold the information from her, and I still feel like that was the right choice but in hindsight I could have been a little more educated about a better way to share all of that with her, showing her that this was not a death sentence for me and that this was something that the two of us were going to make it through together.

  • Jose

    January 9th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    Too often I think that there are adults who think that teens are mini adults and that they should be able to handle the same things that we do.

    Hello! Don’t you remember being a teenager? I was always just one small crisis away from any small little thing being the end of the world, or feeling that way anyway. Can you imagine hearing that a parent has cancer and how that would leave you feeling like your house of cards was all tumbling down?

    I am not saying that it would be right to tell them nothing because they are smart and obviously they are going to know that something is going on and I believe that they have the right to hear all of that from you. But I would choose the timing and the wording very carefully so that you don’t make an already scary situation even more difficult.

  • vera

    January 9th, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    If you hold a few things back to protect their feelings, do you think that this is a bad thing? I see this as something that all parents do every now and then, and you break the news to them in increments, in levels where you think that they can handle it.
    It might not always be a great idea to drop a huge bombshell on them right out of the gate, it might just be a little too much for some kids.

  • Delilah

    January 10th, 2014 at 4:05 AM

    Yeah, at least take what’s going on into their lives into consideration too. It’s not always just about you, even when it’s something like cancer and it feels like it is.

  • Jeremy

    January 11th, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    Am I wrong to think that perhaps depending on the age of the child maybe you just shouldn’t say anything at all about it? There is obviously a big difference in levels of maturity between a 13 year old and a 19 year old so just because one’s age determiens that they are a teen doesn’t mean that they are necessarily ready to deal with all of the adult situations that they could then find themselves in. You know your kids better than anyone and what they should and should not be able to handle. this should all be taken into consideration if you are sick and are thinking about sharing some of that information with them.

  • mills

    January 14th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    @ Jeremy- how could you say nothing at all ? This is your kid? Wouldn’t you want them to at least be prepared if something happened to you?

  • farrah norris

    January 18th, 2014 at 4:32 PM

    They are going to have a hard time with the news no matter how you break it to them. You have to be prepaped to be there for them when they need you and then give them the space that they need to process it too. It is a very fine line that we have to walk in situations like this.

  • Norma

    January 19th, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    Talking about your cancer with teens is like talking to them about sex. It is not a one time conversation, but rather a series of conversations to give them information and answer their questions. When talking to your children, it is very important to adjust what you say to their age and developmental level. Yes, of course a 13 year old is quite different than a 19 year old developmentally. However, it is impractical to write a blog post about each year of teen development, and the general concept remains the same. Teens want and deserve honest information. It is extremely confusing for children or teens to see something occurring, i.e., a parent having/recovering from surgery, going bald and/or vomiting from chemotherapy, becoming extremely fatigued for months, missing work and be told that everything is fine. This teaches them not to trust their instincts. With rare exceptions, there is no way to hide a parent’s cancer. Even if there are no physical signs, the emotional upheaval is impossible to keep hidden. It is up to you to present the information to them in ways they can understand it and handle it emotionally. Sometimes it is helpful to practice what you are going to say so you aren’t so emotional when you talk to your teen that it frightens them. Typically, they take their emotional cues from you. If you are calm and positive, they will be less upset than if you are not.

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