Harpham, Wendy S. MD
WENDY S. HARPHAM, MD
The stakes are high. Teenagers can get into serious trouble when their parent has cancer. Luckily, doctors and nurses can leverage their influence on patients to advocate for those children—and with a minimum of time and effort.
Simply ask your patients one question: “How are you helping your teens through this?” Whatever their answer, now you can get the ball rolling. Emphasizing the urgency, you can provide a handout like this one and/or refer your patients to support services.
As with earlier patient handouts offered in this column, feel free to edit and use this one in whatever way works for you. Should you personalize it for your practice, don't hesitate to email me ( firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions or would like feedback.
Helping Your Teens
Dealing with cancer is tough. So it's perfectly understandable if you haven't been thinking much about the impact of your illness on your teenagers, or if you've decided to postpone dealing with teen issues until you are better. Maybe you think your teens are old enough to deal with it, so you haven't probed any further than, “Are you okay?”
Here's the problem: We know your teens have extra needs now. All teenagers do when a parent has cancer.
Even if your teens seem to be coping well, we know that tending to their extra needs cannot wait. And we know that helping your teens will help you. So we're providing some insights and suggestions to get you started.
- Your children have a right to know what's happening. Open, honest communication enables you to guide your teens to healthy ways of coping.
- Teen self-centeredness is normal and adaptive, as is testing rules and limits. Your cancer doesn't change that.
- Your teens need to continue developing their identity and friendships outside the nuclear family. Regression, such as baby talk or pouting, is a sign of increased and/or unmet needs. Failure in school or after-school activities is a cry for help. Regression and failure must be addressed—and not excused under the circumstances. These teens need help getting back on track.
- Your job is to ensure that your teens' physical and emotional needs are met, not to meet all their needs yourself.
- Your number one priority throughout treatment and recovery is doing all you can to get better and feel better—even if, at times, your teens don't get what they want or need from you.
- Establish and maintain open communication. Always, always, always tell the truth. And always couch facts in love and hope. Don't tell your teens everything. But, for sure, tell them enough to understand what's happening in their world. If you're having trouble, ask for assistance from the children's pediatrician or a counselor.
- Make clear to your teens what they must know about your condition and exactly how they need to help out. Try to find a balance between maintaining rules and routines, and making exceptions. If unsure, seek guidance from the resources listed below.
- Reassure your teens that their schoolwork, afterschool activities and friendships are important, no matter what is happening with you. Provide your teens some respite time from your illness and from their added responsibilities. Encourage your teens to enjoy time with their friends.
- Enlist adults outside the nuclear family to help out. Inform the important adults in your teens' life—teachers, coaches, club leaders—of the situation and how you would like it handled. Try to find a trusted adult to serve as a confidant for your teens.
- Set aside some uninterrupted one-on-one time with each child, even if only 10 minutes once a week. Create opportunities to focus completely on them to tell them you are concerned about them and, most important of all, to show them you love them.
- National Cancer Institute's When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens: cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/when-your-parent-has-cancer
- Suggested search words: cancer (your type), parent, parenting, teens, children
To learn about available workshops, support groups, counselors for teens and/or parents, try contacting your local…
- Hospital's Department of Social Work.
- Chapter of the American Cancer Society
- Chapter of disease-specific organizations (such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society or Komen for the Cure)
- When a Parent has Cancer. A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy S. Harpham, MD (HarperCollins, 2004)
- How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn (St. Martin's Griffin, 2011)
- My Parent has Cancer and It Really Sucks by Maya and Marc Silver (Sourcebooks Fire, 2013).
Here's an idea: Gift-wrap a copy of My Parent has Cancer and leave it on your teen's pillow. This helps you by providing accurate information, practical tips and comforting words geared specifically to teens that your child can process privately, on his or her own terms. Without your saying a word, this tells your teen, “I know this is affecting you. I believe you can deal with this. I love you and care about you.”
Whatever you say and do, remember: The greatest gift we can give our children is not protection from the world, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer.