Talking to Children About a Loved One's Serious Illness: Teenagers

When a loved one is ill, teenagers typically want to get a complete picture of the situation, but may not be able to share their own feelings. Self-consciousness and a desire for privacy might look like lack of concern.

Teenagers typically want a lot of information about their loved one’s illness and have a greater understanding of what happening in terms of their loved one’s condition. However, teenagers may be reluctant to talk about it as they may find it hard to talk to you or show how they are feeling.


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Teenagers are very aware of how they are different from their peers. Their self-consciousness and desire for privacy may display itself as a lack of concern for their loved one. Teens may struggle with feeling embarrassed because of their loved one’s condition or changes in their loved one’s physical appearance.

Teens who are seeking independence and relationships apart from their family may feel frustrated by renewed family responsibilities or feel guilty about continuing to seek independence while loved one is ill. Teens, like school-agers, may see emotional anxiety show up as physical symptoms, such as headaches, loss of appetite or not being able to sleep.

Ways to help:

  • Give complete information and answer questions fully.
  • Provide teenagers with privacy, but also reassure them that you and other adults in the family are there for support.
  • Involve your teen in family decisions and planning. If your teen will be assuming new or different responsibilities during your loved one’s treatment, discuss these plans with the teen before making decisions.
  • If you, as the adult, want privacy and do not feel comfortable with your teen talking about the illness with other people, make that clear from the beginning. Share with them which people you would feel comfortable with this type of communication. Teenagers will need additional outlets for talking because a typical teen response is to talk with their peers.
  • Keep them informed about what is happening in terms of the treatment and prognosis.
  • Remind your teenager that it is okay for them to have fun and to spend time with their friends. Encourage their independence when possible.
  • Help the teenagers see that talking about feelings is a positive and a mature way of coping. If they have difficulty talking with you, encourage them to talk to someone close, such as a relative or family friend.
  • Talk to your teenager's school counselor and teachers about what is going on at home.
  • Recognize that teenagers still need your comfort, direction, and support.
Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/01/2019.

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