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
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Working with the school. At one boy's middle school in Texas, administrators used the loudspeaker to announce that his mom had cancer. The student was horrified. While a school should never share information like that without permission, the Silvers do recommend letting someone know about a loved one's cancer diagnosis – be it a guidance counselor or favorite teacher. That way, if a teen's grades are slipping or he's distracted, the school will understand why. "It creates a support network for your kids," Marc Silver says. "It's a good way to get the feedback going both ways – from home to school and school to home."

Relating to friends. Ideally, teens will have supportive, understanding friends to help them through this time. Despite the best of intentions, though, they may say the wrong thing once in a while. Maya's friends often asked her how she was doing and how her mom was, but "I was pretty curt with my responses," she recalls. "Part of it was wanting to keep the cancer separate from my identity at school and with my friends. And part of it was that I didn't really know how I felt about it, and I didn't want to talk about it." Teens can suggest their friends ask, "Do you feel like talking about it?" And if certain phrases are particularly bothersome – like "I feel so bad for you" – it's OK to declare them off-limits.

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Facing a dire prognosis. When the outlook is bleak, teens cope in a number of ways: They grow closer to their sick parent, or they get angry. They may take out that resentment on the other parent. Open communication will help teens get through these rough times, the Silvers write: "If this book had a motto, it would be: Speak the truth!" It's not smart to deny the grim reality and pretend everything is fine, but you also shouldn't only focus on the loss – to the point that you're so overwhelmed, you can't spend time with the parent who's dying.

Adjusting to life after cancer. When the cancer is no longer a threat, life is supposed to go back to normal. But nothing will be exactly the same again. "It's all over the map," Marc Silver says. "Some kids go back to the way it was; maybe they'll deal with their emotions later on. And some really do grow up faster than their friends and have a different appreciation for what's important in life." Teens may feel more empathy for others – or have no patience for friends fretting about trivial issues. They may worry that the cancer will come back, or that they'll get cancer, too, Marc Silver says. Teens who continue to grapple with their emotions should consider seeking support from a professional.

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Perhaps the most interesting part of writing "My Parent Has Cancer," Marc Silver says, was realizing how much he and his wife didn't know about how their daughters felt. "We were all in the same house, and we all went through this experience," he says. "But because we as adults were so caught up with treatment and doctors and keeping our jobs going, and the kids seemed fine, we just thought they weren't that affected by it. As mom and dad, we should have asked them once in a while: 'Hey, how are you guys doing?'"