Finding Stability

When Dad or Mom Has Cancer, Being A Normal Teen is Difficult

It's normal to be highly emotional as a teenager when your dad or mom has cancer. Learn how to manage those feelings and get the most out of your high school years.

Life is anything but normal when your dad or mom has cancer. You shoulder more responsibility at home, your parents are less available and you have to miss out on parties, to just name a few complexities. Cancer is hard on all family members. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions your friends may not understand.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has a comprehensive booklet for teens about coping when your parent has cancer. Below are some tips for handling this difficult time.

At School

You may find it harder to concentrate at school or get your homework done. Although you may not want everyone to know your dad or mom has cancer, it helps to share what’s happening with your teachers. Teachers and school administrators can help you manage the schoolwork load, let you miss days when needed and possibly give you a pass from some homework.

One teen who was a sophomore in high school when her mom was diagnosed with cancer shared her experience on Stand Up to Cancer. She encourages teens to keep going with extracurricular activities, but says you may need to drop some if you feel stretched too thin. School counselors are also there for you to talk through struggles.

At Home

Embrace your emotions, and don’t be afraid to express them. But keep in mind that some may be more beneficial than others. Being constantly angry won’t help you feel better, nor will it help your parents. If you feel angry most of the time, ask your parents about seeing a counselor or therapist. Anger often covers up other emotions. Talking to a behavioral health professional doesn’t mean you’re crazy or that there’s something wrong with you. Sometimes it’s nice to have a person you can talk to who isn’t involved, where you can say the things you can’t say to family or friends.

Learn about the disease. Your parents may be open with you about the cancer, or they may want to keep certain facts from you, afraid it might scare you. Tell them how much information you would like to have. Ask to go to a doctor’s appointment with mom or dad, and bring your own questions. Be vigilant when searching online for information. Use trusted sources, such as the NCI or American Cancer Society, to avoid reading misinformation.

Talk to your parents. Let them know when you feel left out or if there are certain events you really want them to attend. They may not always be able to make it happen, but this can help your parents make plans and know what’s most important to you.

With Friends

Your friends may not know how to comfort you, and if they haven’t been through something similar, they can’t relate. Tell them plainly what they can say or do that would help.

It’s important to still have fun with your friends. Sometimes teens (and other caregivers) feel guilty about going out while their parent is sick. Parents want you to enjoy life. Attend prom or football games, see movies with your friends, go to birthday parties and other celebrations. It’s also important to tell your friends when you’re not up to hanging out or when you need to stay home and help. Real friends will respect your feelings and limits.

Be careful about harmful behavior, though. It’s easier to slip into drinking, drugs or reckless behavior when you’re struggling emotionally.

This is a tough time, but it will get better. Try to maintain strong bonds with your family. This time can bring you closer.

Talking to a counselor or joining a support group for teens can help you manage emotions and find positive ways to cope. UVA Cancer Center can connect you with support groups or resources to answer your questions.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney