Helping Teens When a Parent Has Cancer

The teenage years are a roller coaster of ups and downs under normal circumstances. A cancer diagnosis all but throws the roller coaster off its track. The silver lining is that there are people to help.
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Adolescence is a time of exploration, experimentation and introspection. Teens strive to be independent while still wanting to taken care of by their parents. They are challenged by experiencing these feelings simultaneously. (In case you were wondering, yes, this is a bigger version of the push-pull experience during the toddler years.)

As if adolescence isn't already hard enough, try adding a parent's cancer diagnosis to the mix.

Just yesterday, a woman told me that when she was a teen and her mother had cancer, no one talked about it. No one. She knew that her mother was very ill, but was left to her own devices to imagine the worst case scenario. She told me that the hardest part was the lack of communication and the assumption that she wouldn't understand or couldn't handle it, either way resulting in an omission of communication. She said that it was the fact that no one talked with her that was the hardest part of the entire ordeal. In my clinical work, I've heard this same sad story too many times!

The Silver Lining is that there ARE tools that can help. Below is a list of ways to support a teenager when a parent has cancer:

Tell the truth. Teenagers have the right to and capacity to understand information. They may feel sensitive to information they feel is incomplete or inaccurate.

Provide detailed information. This is especially true when it comes to information about diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. They may seek out further information on their own in addition to what you provide. Be aware of the fact that information found on the Internet can be (blatantly) wrong. It is important to know if a teen has been researching the Internet and if so, to discuss the findings (and their veracity). The more communication the better!

Respect the adolescent's privacy and opinions by not prying or being judgmental. They may or may not want to talk about the experience with their family. It is important to reassure teens that they can receive support from other sources, like an uncle, a friend's parent, a teacher, clergy person or another member of the extended family.

Understand that teens are often self-conscious. A teenager whose parent has cancer may feel even more different. A support group or peer-to-peer network can help them understand that there are others going through a similar experience.

Include teenagers who want to participate in the caregiving. They should participate in tasks that respect the fact that they are not adults, and yet no longer young children. Provide some time away from the parent. Remember that there is a push-pull relationship that continues despite the cancer diagnosis.

Although the adolescent is capable of abstraction, do not overestimate this capability. Discuss the diagnosis and treatment in simplistic, concrete terms. Provide diagrams and models to ensure comprehension.

Encourage teenagers who want to accompany their family member to treatment in order to see the facility and meet the treatment team. This can help them feel more in control about how medical care is provided.

Facilitate the teen's maintenance of his or her support network. This will go a long way in providing not only support, but also a sense of much-needed normalcy.

Provide consistency. Make an effort to ensure that they will still attend normal activities and social events.

When the parent's diagnosis is made, I recommend saying something along the lines of:

We have medicines that are used to treat this disease that have been effective in many patients. Given this type of cancer and the type of medicines we now have, we think her chances of responding to the treatments are excellent (and if they are not, then say what they are).

It is helpful to encourage questions about the disease and treatment.

If the teen asks about a parent's prognosis, please do NOT say, "She will be fine." This closes communication, leaves teens alone with their questions and concerns and may distance them from professional and personal support networks. Instead, begin paving the way for hopeful but realistic communication the adolescent can trust.

The teenage years are a roller coaster of ups and downs under normal circumstances. A cancer diagnosis all but throws the roller coaster off its track. The Silver Lining is that there are people to help. Engaging professional assistance to help care for a teen is a great way to bring cohesiveness to an incredibly challenging situation.

Maturity is when your world opens up and you realize that you are not the center of it.
-- M.J. Croan

To read more about Hollye's holistic and humorous journey over, around, above and below breast cancer, please visit her blog, The Silver Pen ( You may email her at hollye@TheSilverPen or follow her on Twitter @hollyejacobs.