Q. I have a 14-year-old son who doesn't seem to want to talk about my cancer at all. I know it's hard for him, but it also can't be good for him to keep things bottled up. What should I do?
Teens are at a stage in life when they are trying to develop their own identity, sense of self, and independence. Your son’s not wanting to talk about your cancer is a common reaction many teens have. Teens may feel that their questions or concerns might be hurtful or even scare the parent. It’s important for you to keep communicating with him and show him that it is okay to talk about feelings and ask questions. Ask him what he already knows or thinks about cancer and try to provide concise information that will clear up any misinformation he may have gotten from peers or the internet. Keep him up to date about your cancer and treatments, and let him know that if he has any questions or concerns he can always talk with you about them.
It’s important to respect his privacy and to offer him additional support that may be helpful to him. Identifying a relative like an aunt or uncle, or a teacher, coach, or school counselor with whom he can talk more openly can give him a sense of feeling more in control of his situation, and allow him to voice questions or concerns he may not want to with you.
If you haven’t done so already, I would also encourage you to inform his school. Teachers and school counselors can be supports for both your son and yourself. They can watch for and inform you of any concerns or behavioral changes your son may be displaying, and can advise you should they feel your son might need additional professional help.
CancerCare has been working to expand its support services to children and teens. We periodically offer a teen caregiver support group online. Teens Who Have a Loved One With Cancer Support Group allows teens who have a family member diagnosed with cancer to interact with each other and get support, and the group is facilitated by an oncology social worker.
The following publications may help as you navigate the sometimes tricky territory of having cancer while parenting a teen:
- CancerCare’s Helping Teens When a Parent Has Cancer
- CancerCare’s Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
- How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn (St. Martin’s Press: 1994)
- When a Parent Has Cancer : A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD (Harper Collins: 2004)
Q. Last week I told my son that I had cancer and we have barely spoken about it since. What can I do to help support my son?
As a caring parent you want to help your son understand what you are going through. Children want to know the facts and how they will be affected.
Children, and especially teens, are mostly focused on themselves and their own day-to-day life. You may notice your child is still focused on school, friends, and other activities. That doesn’t mean your child is ignoring your diagnosis. It takes time for a child to mentally process this kind of information and he may not completely understand the implications of your diagnosis until he notices physical changes or if there are disruptions in day-to-day life. Here are some age-specific strategies for communicating with children about cancer:
If your son is under 5, he is likely to ask you a question or bring up your cancer when he is most closely engaged with you one on one. His questions will most likely be brief and concrete, such as: What does your cancer look like? Does the medicine taste bad? He may be scared that cancer is contagious or that he might get cancer too. Your answers should be brief, factual and in words he understands.
Children ages 6-11 typically are more interested in the mechanics of treatment. The “killing” of cancer cells and seeing your treatment as a “battle” or “fight” — whether or not you yourself use these images — is very likely how your son will think of your experience. Some parents are comfortable using this language; others may choose to describe their experience using non-violent imagery. Either way is okay.
If your son is a teenager, he will be wrestling with a variety of conflicting thoughts and feelings. He will want to ask questions but may not want to add to your stress by asking questions or showing concern. He may feel sad about the situation but think it is “unmanly” to have that feeling. He will be certain that none of this “shows” at all but you will see it clearly in his face and demeanor. If you ask him questions he will most likely tell you that he is “fine.” Try not to force the conversation and give him space to process his emotions on his own.
No matter what age your son is, he will let you know when he is ready to talk. There may be times when you need to start the conversation because you are going to lose your hair, or need to rest more, or will be hospitalized. In these cases, be factual, brief, and use words you know your son will understand. Children and teens like to be kept in the loop and the more they are informed, the less anxious they will be when these changes happen. Also, periodically check in with your son, ask if he has questions or wants to talk in order to show him that you are comfortable talking about it and that you are available to talk whenever he is ready.
Here are some additional tips:
- Let your child know that you are always available to answer their questions
- Try to keep family time consistent. When possible, eat meals together, have a movie night, etc.
- Ask your child if there are aunts, uncles, school counselors or other professionals (social workers, psychologists) that they would like to talk to about how they are coping. Sometimes children are more comfortable talking to someone other than the person who is diagnosed
- Find age-appropriate support groups for your children that will help them feel connected to other children who have a similar experience
Here are some publication and book recommendations for further information:
- Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer by Peter Vandernoot (Hatherleigh Press, New York)
- Kemo Shark by Kidscope, Inc. (www.kidscope.org). A cartoon illustrated book featuring “Kemo” the shark who explains how chemotherapy works to fight cancer. Also available in Spanish. Ages 3-12.
- What About Me? A Booklet for Teenage Children of Cancer Patients by Linda Leopid Strauss. A book addressing the specific needs of teens when their parent has cancer.
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Answers from Other Experts About Children and Cancer
Q. I've recently started treatment and I'm trying to find things that can help support my 13-year-old such as groups, counseling, etc. Do you have recommendations?
Children and teenagers experience a range of feelings after a loved one is diagnosed with cancer and it is common for parents to wonder how they can best support their children. While some teenagers may outwardly express their fears, questions and concerns, others may be less expressive. Let your son/daughter know that you are available to talk when he/she is ready. Encourage him/her to come to you with questions and that if you don’t know an answer you will work together to find it out.
Together with your son/daughter, identify the people he/she would feel comfortable turning to for support. For example, you, other family members, teacher, school social worker, religious advisor or family friend. It can be helpful to inform your child’s teacher and school social worker about your diagnosis so that they can provide additional support to your son/daughter at school.
In addition to individual support, teenagers can benefit from participating in a support group. Teenagers often feel isolated and alone as they cope with the cancer diagnosis of a loved one and support groups provide the opportunity for teenagers to meet others who know what it’s like to have a loved one with cancer. This gives them a safe space to express how they feel, give and get support from their peers and learn healthy coping skills.
The Cancer Support Community lists support centers in several states that provide support groups for children and teens. You may also want to speak with the social worker at your hospital or treatment center about local services available for children and teens.
The American Cancer Society may also provide a listing of support services available in your area. They can be reached at 1-800-227-2345.
To learn more about supporting a teen when a loved one has cancer, please read Helping Teenagers When a Parent Has Cancer. An additional resource you may find helpful is our Connect Education Workshop, Helping Children and Teens Understand When a Parent or Loved One Has Cancer.
CancerCare offers free telephone counseling and support to parents who have been diagnosed with cancer. To speak with an oncology social worker for more information about finding the right type of support for your child based on his/her unique needs, call our Hopeline at 800-813-HOPE (4673).