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

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Adolescents may have a particularly tough time with the loss of a parent. If you think about what a teenager needs to accomplish in growing up, this is easier to understand. The task of the teenage years is to achieve a separate identity from their parents and discover themselves as young adults. The struggles that go on between parents and their teenagers are a normal and necessary part of gaining a new identity.

Teenagers often behave in opposite and 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 are 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 unmanageable threat. They may cope in ways that are hard for parents to deal with, such as refusing to talk about the illness or trying to take control. Others may adapt, try to get closer to parents, and 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.

  • Give detailed information about the parent’s diagnosis such as the name of the cancer, symptoms, possible side effects of medicines, what they might expect, and other information if they are interested.
  • Keep the teen up to date with what’s happening with the parent’s treatment. Answer all questions honestly, even as death approaches.
  • Have the teen visit the parent in the hospital. Suggest ideas for topics they may want to discuss with the parent.
  • Tell the teen’s teachers, coaches, and other school staff about the family situation.
  • Discuss any spiritual concerns related to illness, death, and dying.
  • Explain that even though the parents have less time for the children during severe illness, they are still loved and valued.
  • Arrange 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 help choose where to go after school and have a voice in whose care they prefer when a parent can’t be there.
  • The teen may feel bad about having fun when a parent is sick or dying. Be sure that the teen knows parents are aware 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 each teen in your family.
  • Teens may try to protect parents by trying to hide their sadness, anger, or fears. Check in with your 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.

Teens have a more grown-up understanding of death and what it means. After a parent dies, some teens cry or get very angry, while others want to spend time alone. Some need to be around friends and talk. The teen needs to know that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and they can deal with it in their own way. There will be a lot of changes, though. It helps to keep a regular routine with friends, activities, and school.

Because of the turbulent nature of this stage of growth, a parent’s death during the teen years can result in more trouble achieving an identity separate from the parent. This doesn’t mean the child is forever damaged, but that it will be important for them to have relationships with other adults so they can continue to develop a sense of self. The teen may regret arguments with the parent, disobedience, and other issues. There may be guilt over things the teen said or didn’t say to the parent. Sometimes it helps for the teen to write a letter to the parent saying all the things they didn’t say before, as well as all the things they wish they could say now. For many teens, it helps to talk to an adult who can listen without judging them. There are also support groups and Web sites that are just for teens—these can be safe outlets for feelings and good sources of support and encouragement.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012