Helping Teens When a Parent has Cancer


Several readers have inquired about how to help teenagers when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. Thank you for the inquiries. This is a great question. As if adolescence isn’t already hard enough, right?!?

Adolescence is a time of exploration, experimentation and introspection.  Teens strive to be independent while still wanting to taken care of by their parents, and are challenged by experiencing these feelings simultaneously.  (On a side note…yes, this is a bigger version of the push-pull experienced in toddlerhood.)

Yesterday, a woman told me that when she was a teen and her mother had cancer and no one talked about it.  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. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. Include teenagers who want to participate in the caregiving. They should participate in tasks that respect that they are not adults, and yet no longer young children.
  5. Provide some time away from the parent. Remember that there is a push-pull relationship going on for a teen.
  6. 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.
  7. Although the adolescent is capable of abstraction, do not overestimate this capability.  Provide diagrams and models to ensure comprehension.
  8. 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.  As you may recall, I took our daughter (a.k.a Finally Five) to Radiation with me.  It was by far her most positive and memorable experience of my experience.
  9. 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.
  10. Provide consistency. Make an effort to ensure that they will still attend normal activities and social events.

When the parents diagnosis is made, I recommend saying something like:

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, I think her chances of responding to the treatments are excellent.

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.

Do you have any thoughts or experiences that you have used to help teens? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

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



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  1. Kim C says

    First of all I wanted to say that this new blog and format is amazing! It's beautiful, organized and helpful! Thank you Hollye!
    I would also like to respond to your post. During the time of my surgery for cancer, our three daughter's (ages 19, 21 and 23) often visited me in hospital. My husband was very honest with them about everything he heard from the medical profession. They would talk together at the end of nearly everyday of my hospital stay (which ended up being over a month due to complications during surgery). During the time between surgery and chemo two of our daughters decided to take a holiday with friends and for them it was very healing. The distance from me, distraction and being with close friends and their families was healing and restful. After chemo another daughter took a holiday to South East Asia for an extended period of time. It was a soulful journey and helped her to re-evaluate her priorities and to make a decision about her career path. There were a few extended family members who were not pleased about the girl's holidays – but they did it anyway!! All three of them sought professional counselling for a couple of months after my chemo. For them it was a very good decision and helped them to get on with their lives. They returned to university and finished up and even changed their programs. My husband and I also sought counselling later in the healing process. It was much needed for us too. After a cancer diagnosis – if it still feels like a big elephant has taken up residence in the room – chances are there are still some unresolved issues that need to be talked about!!! Now we're all moving forward with our lives and the experience has made us closer as a family and much stronger individuals. There's no easy road and in some small way – I hope this helps.

  2. says

    I am loving the new blog format. I am a person who is not particularly fond of change but always roll with it. You have surpassed my expectations and the contect and visulas are better than ever. Huge kudos on continuing this amazing educational and thought provoking blog.
    All my love and admiration,