Skills Based Interventions Prove Effective for Youth with Chronic Illness

Living with a chronic illness is challenging at any age, but can be especially daunting, physically and psychologically, for teens. “For adolescents and young adults (AYAs), the ongoing management of chronic illness can impose physical, emotional, and financial dependence at the time when increasing autonomy is the developmental goal,” said Ursula M. Sansom-Daly ofthe School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “During this stage, individuals engage in identity formation, establish social competence, balance family and peer influences, develop and explore sexuality, and adapt to emerging intellectual abilities. Not achieving these significant milestones places individuals at heightened risk for poor adaptation within their future adult roles.” Additionally, pain from the illness and side effects resulting from treatment, also impair the teens’ ability to achieve normal levels of social functioning. Sansom-Daly said, “It appears that a young person’s capacity to negotiate the effects of their illness, while navigating complex social relationships, is key to successfully managing these developmental disruptions.”

Although there is little research that focuses on interventions for AYAs, the past several years have yielded more studies examining effective treatment for this segment of the population. Sansom-Daly gathered data that spanned 30 years from 25 interventions for chronically ill teens. “Studies that measured positive growth (e.g., coping, self-efficacy, well-being) rather than only indexing distress levels seemed to have a higher proportion of significant outcomes, suggesting that both aspects to adjustment are important to assess in this generally resilient group,” said Sansom-Daly. “A key finding of this review is the importance of teaching skills—particularly communication skills—and including practical (e.g., role-play, homework exercises) elements both in- and between sessions. Unlike peer-support programs, in skills-based interventions, participants not only gain benefits through sharing disease-related thoughts and emotions, but also by learning ways to identify and change maladaptive thought and behavior patterns.” She added, “Discipline specific training in these professions may further increase the likelihood that modeling, role-playing, and other interactive practice elements may be used in an intervention, or enhance the interventionist’s confidence in doing so.

Sansom-Daly, U. M., Peate, M., Wakefield, C. E., Bryant, R. A., & Cohn, R. J. (2011, November 7). A Systematic Review of Psychological Interventions for Adolescents and Young Adults Living With Chronic Illness. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025977

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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.

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  • Abigail


    December 4th, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    This must be a horrible time to develop a debilitating illness. A teenager is looking for the times and the ways to spread his wings, and to come down critically ill has to be devastating to his or her psyche. They really would need someone expert in helping to guide them through this crisis that hits them, someone who can not only help them but also give support to the family too.

  • Joanna


    December 4th, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    The one challenge that I foresee is finding enough skilled therapists to help handle the large number of cases that must come their way.

  • Davis


    December 5th, 2011 at 5:23 AM

    I had leukemia as a child, and let me tell you, that was pretty daunting. I did not really understand the gravity of what was going on, but I knew it was bad. And having to see that look on my mom’s face every time she came into my hospital room, that was heartbreaking. I know that I can’t be the only one who as a child felt like I was responsible for making her so sad, and it would have been nice to have someone who could have helped me to see that my illness was what was making her so sad, and not necessarily me.

  • bret


    December 5th, 2011 at 6:32 AM

    better to show them they are capable of doing things rather than telling them.a great methodology that if followed will definitely lead to positive results.

  • D.Carter


    December 5th, 2011 at 11:55 PM

    Imagine yourself in their shoes-You;re at a stage wherein things should be getting better and better for you but your chronic illness is bogging you down and everybody around you treats you like theyre sorry. Is that the kind of an environment and feel you’d like to have? Of course not!

    Skill-based methods are a lot better in my opinion,as the article suggests,because it does a lot to the youngster mentally to overcome the problem,to feel normal and to feel a sense of independence and strength.

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