Even teens with chronic medical illnesses need to be allowed to be teens

Raising a teenager is hard enough without the added stress of a medical issue. These nine tips will help foster positive growth in your teenager.

Parents of children with chronic medical illnesses—such as cancer, sickle cell anemia or other disorders—often struggle with how to help their children be teenagers. Raising a teen is hard enough without the added stress of a medical condition.

The teen years are a time of rapid physical, mental and emotional changes, including changes in biology, thinking and social functioning. Teens begin to think in more complex and abstract ways and consider different perspectives. They gain empathy and the ability to reason and understand consequences.

Changes in social roles can also occur. Increased responsibilities and decision-making power within the family are common. In the community, teens might be granted the right to drive, vote and/or work.

It is common for teens to have increased conflict with and emotional distance from parents. They spend more time with friends and may experiment with new things. These normal experiences do not always lead to problems. Most teenagers progress through this stage without any big issues.

The timing and impact of these changes in teens vary widely, though almost every teen will experience these same changes to some degree.

9 ways to foster positive growth

How can parents balance a desire to help a teen grow up and gain independence with the need to protect that child from more harm? This time of growth can be alarming for parents, especially those who have helped their children through serious medical conditions. Being the parent of a child with a chronic illness can alter who you are as a person, spouse and parent. Milestones that in the past may have been exciting now might make you scared, worried or confused.

As a parent, you positively affect how your teen handles these changes. Here are a few suggestions to help your teen develop self-awareness and confidence:

  • Help build a work-together relationship with your teen and find chances for your teen to take part in decisions.
  • Remain involved in your teenager’s world by attending school activities and eating meals together.
  • Go on walks together and/or find a joint interest or hobby.
  • Talk openly and honestly.
  • Let your teen talk without interruption and actively listen to them.
  • Prompt instead of correct, and encourage them to problem-solve.
  • Involve your teenager in creating rules and consequences.
  • Model healthy relationships in your personal life.
  • Encourage and support your teenager’s ideas and natural abilities.

Typical teen outcomes

  • An increased sense of autonomy. This means they do more things on their own and make decisions. They do not rely on their parents as much for personal needs.
  • A refined identity. They have much more self-awareness, knowing who they are or who they want to be.
  • Greater intimacy in relationships. This includes having more emotional, mature and complex relationships.
  • Decisions made about future goals. They tend to focus more on education and careers.

Your child’s medical and treatment history may have caused physical, mental and emotional limits that set your child apart from typical teens. If you are a parent of a teen with these types of limits, help is available. Seek support from your child’s primary care doctor or a psychologist.

Jennifer Allen, PhD, St. Jude staff psychologist, contributed to this post.

About the author

Kendra Parris, PhD, is an assistant faculty member of the Psychology Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. View full bio.

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