How to Help Teens Cope With a Parent's Cancer

The book “My Parent Has Cancer and it Really Sucks” offers coping strategies for teens.

Marc and Maya Silver

If you've punched a hole in the wall, and you need to fix it, here's how: Buy a wallboard repair patch and some "mud," then spread it with a sheetrock taping knife. Let the wall dry before smoothing it out with a sanding sponge. Apply paint with a white foam roller, and you're done.

That's the kind of advice packed into "My Parent Has Cancer and it Really Sucks," written by father-daughter duo Marc and Maya Silver. Maya was 15 – her sister Daniela 12 – when their mom, Marsha, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. After finishing treatment in 2002, she's now in good health.

Maya and Daniela are far from alone: About 2.85 million children under 18 live with a parent who is battling or has survived cancer, and one-third are teens, according to the journal Cancer. Though coping with a loved one's cancer is tough at any age, teens are thrust into a particularly difficult spot – craving the independence that comes with adolescence, while being sucked into family life and responsibilities at home.

That's why Maya, now 27, and her father decided to write "My Parent Has Cancer." In the process, they interviewed medical professionals and 100 teens who have all been there. "The teens we talked to felt embarrassment, guilt, resentment and anger, and that's something we tried to acknowledge in the book," Maya says. "There's this range of emotions that exist, and kids who are feeling this way aren't bad people. It's just really hard to go through as a teen."

Among the topics the Silvers tackle:

Breaking the news. Marc Silver and his wife told their daughters about Marsha's breast cancer while they were all in the car together. "Looking back, they say that was good," he says. "Because they couldn't just say, 'We don't want to hear about this right now, we're leaving the room.' We could just talk, and sometimes it's easier not to sit and look each other in the face and see all the emotions." Keep in mind that tears might be shed and harsh words uttered – but honesty is the best policy. Once the news has been shared, the Silvers suggest saying "cancer" over and over again, until the word loses some of its meaning. Families can also write it on a piece of paper and tear it up into a million little pieces.

[Read: How to Be a Good Listener.]

Communication within the family. It's the other "c" word – not cancer, but communication. And how it happens will vary from family to family, depending how much a teen wants and needs to know. "It's important that parents don't paint a sunny picture of how things are going – and then have the kid end up feeling betrayed or lied to," Maya Silver says. If your family always holds family meetings, keep it up. Or set up a white board and marker where teens can scrawl questions and comments, and their parents can write answers. Parents can also leave Post-it notes with updates around the house, with messages like, "Dad has chemo today, so we'll be having takeout for dinner."

Parentification. The Silvers use this term to describe teens who adopt a parental role, taking on responsibilities that typically fall to mom or dad. Sometimes, teens step up to the plate and take on extra tasks on their own; other times, parentification is thrust upon a kid, especially in single-parent homes. The key is finding balance. "One 13-year-old I interviewed took care of her younger sisters during the week, but on weekends, she was able to go out with her friends or go to the mall," Marc Silver says. "It made her feel good to have that break."

Dealing with stress. Punching a hole in the wall might alleviate your tension – for a little while. But the Silvers recommend less destructive strategies. Maya coped by sticking to her regular schedule: She worked hard to keep up with her classes, took on a number of extracurriculars, ran track and spent time out of the house with her friends. "A lot of different arts can help you – they're good, creative outlets for emotion and anger," she says. "And sports are great physical therapy." She stresses the importance of continuing to have fun with friends and family. Even in the darkest of times, she says, laughing is crucial.