Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With a Parent`s Terminal Illness

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Teens

Adolescents may have a particularly tough time with the loss of a parent. This is easier to understand if you keep in mind what a teen needs to accomplish in growing up. The major task of the teen years is to achieve a separate identity from their parents and discover themselves as young adults. The struggles that go on between parents and teens are a normal and necessary part of gaining a new identity.

Teenagers often behave in unpredictable ways – one day they feel independent and the next they retreat into the safety of childhood. As every parent of a teenager knows, it can be a delicate balancing act between giving a teenager enough independence to learn and experience the world while trying to protect them from what they’re not yet mature enough to handle. These struggles go on in every household.

Teens are old enough to know that their lives will greatly change due to their parent’s illness and death, and they struggle to deal with this threat. They may cope in ways that are hard for parents to understand, such as refusing to talk about the illness or trying to take control. Others may adapt, try to get closer to parents, and/or try to restore order to the home.

As the parent gets sicker, the teen may want to sit with them for short times each day. Some teens may want to be as far away as possible from their sick family member and thoughts about their death. Most want to spend time with the parent, but still have some time to be a kid. It’s OK for the teen to help out, but they should not be in charge of their parent’s care.

Some tips on helping teens at this time:

  • If they are interested, give teens details about the parent’s condition, symptoms, possible side effects of medicines, what they might expect in the next few days or weeks, and other information.
  • Keep the teen up to date with what’s happening with the parent’s treatment. Answer all questions honestly, even as death approaches.
  • Let the teen spend as much time as they like with the parent, if possible. Suggest topics to talk about.
  • Explain that even though the parents have less time and energy for them, they still love and value them.
  • Tell the teen’s teachers, coaches, and other school staff about the family situation.
  • Discuss any spiritual concerns related to illness, death, and dying.
  • Try for as normal a life at home as possible.
  • Don’t expect the teen to take on caregiving and other difficult tasks. Talk with the cancer care team about your family situation and see if you can get other help.
  • When possible, let the teen have a voice in where to go after school and in whose care they prefer to be when a parent can’t be there.
  • Be sure teens know that having fun and spending time with friends are important parts of their lives, and there’s no need to feel guilty about it.
  • Encourage teens to keep up their usual involvement in school and other activities.
  • Ask a relative or trusted friend to take a special interest in the teen.
  • Address feelings of anger and frustration (even if they are unspoken).
  • Being willing to tolerate some reluctance to share thoughts and feelings.
  • Teens may try to protect parents by trying to hide their sadness, anger, or fears. Check in with teens often and let them know that everyone has feelings that can be confusing and overwhelming. Tell the teen it’s OK to ask you questions and express feelings that they think might upset others.
  • Encourage your teen to keep a journal or log.

Last Medical Review: 01/14/2015
Last Revised: 03/20/2015