Talking With Your Teenager

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2015

Adolescents often respond differently than younger children or adults to a family member’s cancer diagnosis. They may need more information or more time to sort through their feelings. A teen’s parents or primary guardian should take the lead in discussing a family member’s cancer diagnosis.

For parents and primary guardians

Tips for talking with your teenagers. Talking with your teenagers about your or a family member’s cancer diagnosis may be intimidating. Discussing the topic with sensitivity will help them process the news and contribute to the health of your relationship.  Although adolescents typically seek more independence, they still look to you for support and reassurance. Here are some tips to help talk with your teens about cancer.

  • Gently share most of the facts about your or a family member’s cancer diagnosis and treatment plan. Ignoring or hiding the truth from teenagers may undermine their trust in you.

  • Consider sharing information in multiple conversations because it may take them time to process all of the feelings that arise.

  • Ask your teenagers if they understand the information that you have shared and if they have any questions.  

  • Answer all questions gently yet honestly.

  • Try to keep routines as consistent as possible, but prepare them for the things that will change.

  • Ask for help, but avoid giving them too much responsibility. Sometimes, teenagers may try to take on too many responsibilities, which may lead to increased stress.

  • Ask specific questions about your teen’s feelings, such as, “What is it like for you when I'm gone on Tuesdays for treatment?”

  • Avoid general questions, such as “How are you?”

  • Watch for changes in your teens’ behavior that mean they could need additional support to help them cope. This can include:

    • Changes in academic performance or a loss of interest in school

    • Withdrawal from friends or over involvement with friends

    • Mood changes, such as extreme anxiety or constant sadness

    • Drug or alcohol use

  • Remember that if your teen doesn’t communicate much with you, they may seek support from friends or other adults, such as grandparents or coaches.

  • Consider recommending a support group for your teen.

  • Remember to laugh with your teen and show affection, even if they act embarrassed about it.

    For grandparents and other family members

    It is important that parents or primary guardians take the lead in discussing a family member’s cancer diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with cancer, you may want have follow-up discussions with your grandchildren or nieces or nephews.

    Here are some important things to consider before having any discussion with your grandchildren or your nieces or nephews.

    • Ask your adult children or siblings how much they have already discussed with their teens.

    • Ask if it is okay for you to have a follow-up discussion with grandchildren or nieces or nephews.

    • Encourage your whole family to talk with each other, so there is no confusion among the children in the family.

    • Ask how and when you can help provide support for the teens in your family.

    • Consider sharing the above tips with your adult children or siblings.

    More Information

    Talking About Cancer

    Family Life

    Parenting While Living With Cancer


    Additional Resource

    CancerCare: Children