Helping a Teenager Cope When a Parent Has Cancer

Teens Who Have a Parent With Cancer Need Special Attention

woman comforting teenage girl
How to help teens cope when a parent has cancer.

Coping with a parent with cancer is a trying experience for anyone, especially teens. In a child’s eyes, parents are protectors. Seeing them weak or hurting can have a profound impact, especially on older children who have more of a clear understanding of the circumstances.

Pro-skateboarder Tony Hawk’s father passed away from lung cancer when he was just 17. In an interview about his father's journey, Tony shared that watching him “wither away” was the hardest part of all.

This is a common and understandable struggle for any child whose mother or father has the disease.

When a parent has lung cancer, what can they do to help their children cope, especially their tweens and teens?

Communicate Openly

Children usually want to know what is happening with their parent. It is important to sit down and explain (in an age appropriate manner) your diagnosis and a general overview of what treatment you will be having. Children often glean bits and pieces of information from listening to their parents' conversations with others. Left on their own, this can be frightening as they fill in the blanks trying to make sense of what is happening.

Answer questions. Stop periodically and ask your child if he or she has any questions. If it is clear that you are receptive to questions, your child will be more likely to ask you about concerns he or she has in the future.

Be Honest

We all want to protect our children, and that instinct extends to wanting to protect them from bad news.

When the prognosis is not good, or complications arise, we want to shelter our offspring. But honesty during the difficult times is important to maintain their trust.

Don’t Lean Too Heavily

Children aren’t little adults, and it is important for them to continue to be children, even when they are close to adulthood.

Don’t switch roles. Even if your child is willing to pick up household responsibilities, find others to help as well so that your child doesn't feel burdened with more than she can handle.

That said, feeling helpless can be as difficult as carrying too much responsibility, and children—especially teens—can provide a lot of support for a parent living with cancer. If you find yourself feeling guilty for delegating an appropriate amount of responsibility to your teen, take heart, knowing that in this day and age we tend to sway in the direction of denying our children opportunities to grow and mature.

Don’t Forget the “Small Stuff”

We often remember the “big stuff” (birthdays, graduation, etc.) in the midst of cancer treatment, but sometimes the “small stuff” can seem just as big to a child. A report card coming home, pictures before prom, a hockey game or gymnastics meet, or their first “real” date are all big events to a child. Adult friends frequently ask what they can do to help.

Ask them if they can fill in for you by attending a game or school event that you can’t get to. Ask them to take a few pictures as well, and then sit with your child and talk about how proud you are of him or her.

Make Sure They Have a Support System

The physical suffering of a parent can be heart wrenching for a child, and this is something that is easier to talk about with a third person. Encourage your teen to spend time with friends and other family members that he can confide in. Ask your cancer care team if any support groups are available in your area for children whose parents have cancer.

Try to Maintain Family Routine

Maintaining some form of routine in the family after a diagnosis of cancer is important for children, whether that means a regular bedtime for the younger child or a regular curfew for the older child. An adequate amount of sleep, regular mealtimes, and opportunities for your children to engage in physical activity, can help them to cope with circumstances beyond their control. It can also make a big difference in their overall attitude.

Find Reasons to Laugh Together

Laughter is sometimes the best medicine—both for you and for your child. If you can show your child that you are comfortable with the changes that have taken place, she will feel more at ease as well. Have your child try on your wig. Giggle about clothes that look too big from weight loss, or too small due to fluid retention. Cancer is a serious, scary disease, and there are times to be solemn and reflective. Yet, opening the doors so your child is not afraid to share his latest joke or happy moment can be good medicine for both of you.

Maintain Rules and Limits

"Mom guilt” or “dad guilt” can rear its head when you are living with cancer, especially when treatments interfere with your usual parenting duties. It can be tempting to allow your child to “bend the rules this once” and be more permissive, but setting clear limits is more important now than ever. Children need consistent rules and discipline. Older teens, in particular, are exposed to an array of unhealthy coping methods, such as drugs and alcohol, and a firm gentle hand combined with open communication is critical.

Let Them Live Their Own Lives

Going through treatment for lung cancer is a full-time job and can fill every moment of your day. Despite this, it is important for a parent with cancer to let a child continue to move forward with his own life. Movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” play out the emotions of children who have left dreams behind following the illness of a parent. Tony Hawk’s testament to a father with lung cancer who let him pursue his dream and become a skateboarding legend through hard work and determination speaks of the influence a parent with cancer can have on their teen.

Make Memories

Regardless of whether you have a cancer with a very poor prognosis, a curable cancer, or have never had cancer, making memories with your children will help them feel your love for the rest of their lives. Cherish the special moments with your children. Start a new tradition. Take pictures. Keep a journal. Cancer can’t take away memories.


National Cancer Institute. When Your Parent Has Cancer – A Guide for Teens. Accessed 06/04/16.

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