Special Considerations When Talking to Teens
The teen years are often difficult in general due to various reasons. Teenagers may be experiencing identity, self-esteem and relationship challenges aside from the news of any cancer diagnosis. Talking to your teenager about a cancer diagnosis, treatment and prognosis may be very different than approaching these conversations with younger children.
Teens are often very involved with their friends and school and may seem to put themselves first. This is because they are at the age when people try to figure out who they are as they move toward independence. Peer pressure, demands of school and worries about the future are common challenges for teens. If on top of that a parent or family member is diagnosed with cancer, teens may have an especially hard time.
This doesn’t mean they won’t be able to cope. But it does mean teens are likely to have different needs than younger children. Here are some tips for talking to teens:
Be prepared with specific information about their loved one’s diagnosis and treatment. Answer teens’ questions openly and honestly, and let them know of people and places they can go for more information.
Respect your teens’ privacy. Teens may want to talk only to certain people about their loved one’s illness. Make sure there are other people, such as close relatives or family friends, who they can go to, but try to come to this decision together.
Strive for consistency. Continue to encourage teens to spend time seeing their friends, keeping up with schoolwork and going to social activities. Let them know that you think it’s important for them to be teenagers and that it’s okay to have fun in spite of coping with cancer.
Avoid role reversal. When a parent or loved one is sick, teens may feel the need to take on the role of caregiver, whether it involves caring for and adult who is sick, or for younger siblings. However, it’s important for teens to know that they will continue to be cared for. Acknowledge their concerns, but reassure them that their responsibilities of being a teenager have not changed.
Be aware of teens’ special concerns. Teens might have special concerns such as whether they will get the same form of cancer. Check with your medical team about how to best answer these questions, such as regarding hereditary diagnoses. Your teen might be concerned about the cost of treatment and wonder if there will be money for college or other big expenses. Offer whatever reassurances you can to these concerns. If you are unsure of what may be financially feasible moving forward, continue to share that you are doing everything you can so they can feel financially secure. CancerCare can help your family with questions about financial assistance to help manage these concerns.
Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
Good communication with your children will help everyone in the family cope with whatever changes lie ahead. Here are some tips to keep communication flowing:
Let your children know they can always come to you and that you will tell them the truth. Be honest and hopeful.
If they have trouble talking about cancer, suggest to your children that they try writing down their questions and concerns. Your medical team and CancerCare can help you find answers for anything you’re unsure about. Use games or arts-and-crafts projects. Children are more likely to identify and communicate their feelings through play activities. They will tell you how they feel just by drawing a picture of something that’s on their minds.
Schedule family update meetings when children can discuss what’s on their minds, share how they are feeling and find out new information.
Build a support network. Speak with your spouse or partner, close friends or your child’s teachers and guidance counselors at school about being available should your child need additional support. Make sure your child feels comfortable with this.
Try to spend relaxed, stress-free time with your children to talk about their hobbies, school life, friends and activities. Help them feel free to talk about fun things. Let them know that cancer is only one of many things to talk about. Enjoy being together.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. CancerCare provides free case management, counseling, education and practical help for families coping with cancer. All our services are free of charge.
Learning that someone in the family has cancer is an emotional experience for children. They might feel afraid, confused, guilty or angry. In fact, they are likely to feel different things at different times.
If you help your children stay informed and connected, they will have an easier time coping with the changes that cancer brings. Let them know that strong feelings are normal, and encourage them to speak freely and openly. CancerCare and the resources at the back of this book can help.