Helping Your Teen Cope with Chronic Illness
Your teenager has recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness. This is an illness that lasts long-term and may have no cure. Examples of chronic illnesses are asthma, depression, eating disorders, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and diabetes. The teen years are a time of great emotional and physical change. And a chronic illness can add more issues and challenges for both you and your teen. But there are things you can do to help you and your child cope.
Helping your child adjust
Acknowledge your child's feelings about his or her diagnosis of an illness. Your child may be angry, upset, or scared. This is normal and expected. Give your child comfort. But don't shelter your child from the truth about his or her condition.
Check in with your child often about:
How he or she is feeling, emotionally and physically
Whether he or she is following the treatment plan
Whether your child wants you to do more or less to help (let your child tell you how much responsibility he or she feels able to handle)
Praise your child for taking an active part in his or her treatment and following directions without resistance.
Don't yell or get angry if your child won't follow his or her treatment plan. Instead, work with your child and your child's healthcare provider. Discuss ways to adjust the treatment plan so your child will be more willing to follow it.
Let your teen be a teen. As much as possible, let your child do things that his or her friends are doing (such as sports, after-school activities, and field trips).
It's not uncommon for a responsible teen to burn out on taking care of a chronic illness. If this happens, it's OK for you to take over some responsibilities from your child until your child is ready to take them back.
Maintaining your perspective
After the diagnosis of a chronic illness, you and your child have new challenges. But never forget that your child is still a child. Don't let the illness dictate how you parent or change your relationship with your child. Here are some tips:
Stick to your rules. Maintain discipline, rules, and boundaries for your child. Don't let your child off the hook in terms of behavior or responsibility because of the illness.
Don’t become overprotective or overbearing. You may be tempted to control your child's choices and actions to help keep him or her safe. But this will hurt your child in the long run. Let your child take some responsibility. This may mean that your child makes mistakes. But learning from mistakes is an important part of growing up.
Keep it normal. Treat your child like a normal teen as much as possible.
Following up with your child's healthcare provider
Make sure your child sees his or her provider regularly. But don't let the chronic illness overshadow the rest of his or her healthcare needs. Be sure to take your child to see a primary care provider for regular checkups and to discuss normal teen concerns.
Watching for anxiety or depression
It's normal for your child to have trouble adjusting to having a chronic condition. In the short term, worry, sadness, or fear is to be expected. But if they last, they may be signs of a more serious problem. If you notice any of the following, tell your child's healthcare provider right away:
Big changes in appetite or weight
Not sleeping or sleeping too much
Talking about feeling hopeless or worthless
Loss of interest in family, friends, or activities that were once enjoyed
Increase in reckless or risk-taking behavior
Get support for your child and yourself
In a support group, you and your teen can talk with others in the same situation. These groups can offer advice, help, and understanding. There are groups for specific conditions. There are groups for parents, teens, and families. Ask your child's healthcare provider or other providers about local support groups. Or call your local hospital and ask for referrals.
Ask your child's healthcare provider for good resources about your child's illness. Ask the provider for names of reliable online sources. Below are some suggestions for general information on coping with chronic illness.
The C. Everett Koop Institute, geiselmed.dartmouth.edu/koop/resources/chronic_illness
American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/helpcenter
American Pediatric Association, www.healthychildren.org