How To Explain Your Illness to Your Teenager

How To Explain Your Illness to Your Teenager

Usually the first thing I say to the parents of adolescents is, "If I could predict how your teenager will respond to this, I'd be a miracle worker. Nobody ever knows how a teenager will respond."

The fact is, a teenager facing a parent's illness may go off in all kinds of different directions, and that's okay — that's normal.

A parent's grave illness brings demands that most teens don't even begin to know how to handle. As adolescents, they're struggling to move away from the family. Now what should they do? Move back and help? Or run as fast as they can in the other direction? A parent's illness can create acute levels of psychological and emotional conflict.

Information, Please: Adolescents Need To Be Treated As Adults

Most adolescents seem to need an enormous amount of informa­tion; they want to be treated pretty much as adults. Not only will they want the basic information of the diagnosis, they'll also ask for the tech­nical terminology, the statistical information on survival rates. The depth of their questioning may astonish you. And you mustn't duck. If you don't know, say, "Let's find out."

Today there is a new source of information literally at your chil­dren's fingertips — a source undreamed of fifteen years ago. Used prop­erly, the Internet can be enormously valuable in helping your children cope with this family medical crisis. But used improperly, or without supervision, the same Internet can terrify — can pose grave dangers to your children's mental and emotional well-being at this moment of great stress. Chapter 5 aims to help you use, and prevent your children from misusing, this razor-sharp two-edged sword.

Being Honest with Them: Keeping Faith

Of all the age groups, adolescents are the most sensitive to decep­tion and dishonesty — and so the most likely to lose faith in adults.

In a way, they want to lose faith in adults — it'spart of that normal process of moving away, into their own adulthood. So it's very easy for them to pick up an evasion or a white lie, and say, "Well, Dad's a liar; I'm not going to believe anything he tells me."

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Privacy Is Very Important: Theirs and Yours

How To Explain Your Illness to Your Teenager

Privacy is a very important issue to teenagers; you can't force your­self inside their heads. You give the information and then wait: They may or may not talk to you. What's important is that they have some­one to talk to. So if you know your teen talks from the heart to a best friend, the parent of a pal, a teacher, a coach, a minister or rabbi, then encourage him or her to share this new crisis with a surrogate.

You might promise your child: What she tells the surrogate will be confidential; the surrogate won't be reporting back to you. But both child and surrogate must understand: If your child starts con­templating harmful behavior — to herself or others — or if she's start­ing to think suicidal thoughts — then the surrogate must report that to you.

There's another consideration here: your own privacy. Probably you do not want the news of your illness "spread all over town." And you have every right to set guidelines: It's your family, your body, your ill­ness. On the other hand, your teenager must have someone other than you to talk to. Within those two sets of needs — your need for privacy, your teenager's need to talk — is there someone you can personally share this illness with, tell him or her that your child knows what's happening and may want to talk?

If you particularly do not want your son or daughter talking to teenage friends, then you must be very clear about that from the outset — and you must give the child another outlet. A teen's natural behavior is to go to other teens.

You can say quite honestly, "This is a very private illness. I don't want everyone in town talking about me. I'll be embarrassed if people treat me differently. So: I love you, I want you to know the truth, I know you need to talk, and here's who you can talk to. But I don't want this all over town, at least not yet."

This is not dishonesty. It is family privacy. And it's perfectly all right.

Giving Your Children Hope: Sharing Your Hopes, Thoughts & Beliefs

However grave the illness, hope comes along with every diagnosis. And it is neither wrong nor dishonest to pass this hope along to your children. Your physician may tell you there is a 15 percent chance of survival. That gives you a chance; there is treatment and you're deter­mined to make the most of it. Other people have licked this thing, and you will too. That is what, being totally honest, you can tell your children. Give them your understanding of what's happening and what can happen.

If you tell your children what you yourself truly believe and hope, even if there's a somewhat different spin from what the doctors may have said, then there is no dissonance; it fits. Only when you tell them something you don't believe does the dissonance overwhelm their secu­rity, and their confidence in you.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
St. Martin's Griffin/St. Martin's Press.
©1994, 2011 by Kathleen McCue with Ron Bonn

This article was adapted with permission from the book:

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness: Supportive, Practical Advice from a Leading Child Life Specialist
-- by Kathleen McCue M.A. C.C.L.S. with Ron Bonn.

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious IllnessFully revised and updated, this new edition also explores the major issues and developments from the last decade that affect children today, including the dangers and opportunities of the Internet, a deeper understanding of how hereditary diseases affect children, the impact of the nation's explosive growth in single-parent families, and new insights into how family trauma and a parent’s mental illness may affect children.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Authors

KATHLEEN MCCUE, M.A., C.C.L.S.KATHLEEN MCCUE, M.A., C.C.L.S. pioneered the care and treatment of children stressed by a parent’s grave illness in her renowned clinic and playroom at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She then founded and continues to direct the children’s program at The Gathering Place, a support center for families touched by cancer, in Cleveland. This book is based on her lifetime of experience in the field she helped create.

RON BONNRON BONN, a three-time Emmy Award winning television journalist, now teaches journalism at the University of San Diego. From 1960 to 2000 Ron Bonn served as producer and executive producer for CBS News, NBC News, and others, including five years as senior producer of "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" and creation of such programs as "Universe," the science magazine for television.


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