Help for teens whose parents have cancer
Marc and Maya Silver
When Maya Silver was grappling with her mother’s breast cancer, she noticed that there weren’t many resources available for teens dealing with a parent’s cancer. So she tag-teamed with her dad — the author of “Breast Cancer Husbands — to create a survival guide for teens undergoing such duress, “My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks.” We asked the father-daughter duo about the best ways to help this underrepresented group cope.
You interviewed many teenagers for this book. Were there any recurring topics?
Maya: The friend issue came up over and over again, like, “My friends don’t really get it” or “I feel like I can’t talk to them about it.” Another thing was communication. [There was] a lot of variation in how much they wanted to know about their parent’s cancer. I think every teen valued being told the truth and being communicated with. We had a lot of teens say that their parents didn’t tell them right away or told them in a weird way and withheld information or made things seem sunnier than they really were. That really made the teens feel betrayed or like they didn’t know what was going on. We emphasize that in the book that communication is very important. It’s gonna vary from family to family, what works best and what everyone wants, but it has to be there.
Marc: Yeah. Some families have a family meeting tradition, and that’s fine, but some families don’t like family meetings and you don’t want to call the first meeting in your family’s history to present this news. Maybe your family works better just chatting in the car. Some people said maybe leave a notebook where everybody goes, and the kids write their questions and the parents read them and write their answers. The idea is that there’s no one size fits all way to tell the kids but like Maya said, you’ve got to be honest.
We often try to lend support to friends going through a rough time by saying something like, “If you need anything, let me know.” But Maya, what are some concrete words or actions that you appreciated when your mom was ill?
Maya: Just understanding. If I didn’t want to have any friends over to the house when my mom was really sick, or if I just wanted to get away and stay busy, I had people there to help me do that. You definitely hear a lot of “I’m so sorry!” [and] constant asking how you’re doing, how you’re family’s doing. That was not very helpful for me. Knowing that I had good friends around me and a strong family was very helpful.
What else did teens find not helpful?
Marc: One girl [we interviewed], Caitlin, went to school, and the teacher asked a question so Caitlin raised her hand to answer. And the teacher goes, “Oh, Caitlin, how’s your mom?” And Caitlin was so mad because she did not want to talk about or have to think about her mom at that moment — she wanted to answer the question. Kids don’t want to be constantly reminded. A social worker at MD Anderson [Cancer Center] told me about a middle school’s boy’s mom who was diagnosed with cancer, and the school announced it over the [PA system]. They did it out of the best of intentions, I think to rally everybody around this kid, but this is not what that kid needed.
Maya: Another thing is an artificial sense of compassion. We had a couple of really out-there examples, like, “I know exactly how you feel, my gecko just died.” [Or] you tell someone that your mom has a serious form of breast cancer and they’re like, “Oh, my grandma’s sick too.” You want to be like, “You have no idea.”
What were some of most popular ways you found teens deal with their stress?
Marc: They found all kinds of ways to cope, and a lot of the ways they found were really positive, like listening to music, or going for a run, or writing in a journal, or playing video games. What’s cool about that is you’re learning how you can get through a tough time in life, and that’s something you can carry with you throughout your life.
Did you find any differences in how boys handled the issue, versus girls?
Marc: I interviewed a bunch of guys in Cleveland and two of them said that they punched a hole in their bedroom wall or in the house because they were so mad. After that, I asked every boy I interviewed, “So did you punch a hole in the wall?” and almost all of them said they did. (Laughs) There’s a little note in the book that’s how to repair that hole in the wall.
How much information should people at the teen’s school have?
Marc: It’s good if someone at school knows because that way the kid has a confidante. I think some kids might feel like, “Oh, I don’t want anyone at school to know.” And in general most of the experts that we interviewed said it’s really helpful to have someone at the school, even if it’s one person, who knows, because that way if there’s a change in the parents’ condition, if something’s going on at home, then you have a go-to person. If you want the teachers in the classroom to know, [that] can be helpful because a lot of kids were affected in the way they did their work at school — some kids overachieved, some kids just kind of stopped doing homework or didn’t focus as they usually did. It’s good if teachers understand why that’s happening. And the parents and the kids can talk about it together.
In addition to the teens, you also interviewed a lot of experts. Did their advice match up with what the teens said?
Marc: I think they just emphasized that every kid’s gonna react differently and that that’s OK. One thing that’s surprising is they said some kids just don’t want to talk about it, and that’s OK. You can’t force the conversation when the kid doesn’t want to have it. The other thing that one expert talked about that was kind of intriguing, and I think this is something that adults can relate to too, she used this phrase “the tyranny of positive thinking.” The idea is that we live in a society where everybody wants you to be upbeat all the time and optimistic all the time, and you know what? People aren’t like that. It’s perfectly normal to be down and to be upset.
How can parents go about best communicating with their teen about their illness?
Maya: The first step to communicating is communicate about how you’re going to communicate. (Laughs) So instead of just assuming that your kid wants to know every detail, or that they don’t really want to know anything, or that they only want to hear good news, and instead of a parent assuming that the teen doesn’t want to talk about it, you should say from the outset, “We’re gonna have this experience for the next one to however many years —what do you want to know, and how would you like to communicate about this?” Like my dad said, some families, if they have preexisting family meetings, then that makes sense to have a weekly get-together and just kind of touch base and talk about what’s going on. Some teens might want to communicate through text, or email or whatever: Find out how your teen wants to communicate, and how much they want to know, and then you can adjust as needed.
Marc: It’s hard for a teen sometimes to confront a parent and say, “You’re not telling me enough.” A parent could say, like, a day later, “Hey, what I told you yesterday about dad’s surgery or mom’s chemotherapy, was that helpful? Was it too much information? Was it not enough information?” Ask follow-up questions and get a sense of what your kid needs from you.