How can we best help struggling teens?
As many parents know – what works for one teen doesn’t necessarily work for another. We sent our five kids to three different high schools for just that reason.
Still, it amazes me how much my kids differ from each other – what they enjoy, what interests them, what stresses them, and what comforts them. And those differences, clear-as-day as children, became even more pronounced as they grew older, defining and refining their sense of identity and individuality.
At Jeremy’s Circle, we created a nationwide community to support kids coping with cancer or cancer loss in their young families, and I often receive calls asking how to help a struggling teen.
Shortly after Jeremy Coleman died in 2008, leaving our three kids under 7 behind, his close friends, sisters, and I started Jeremy’s Circle with a focus on children under twelve. Today, the number of families we support has swelled to over 860, and the children who joined us over the years have grown older (as they do!). We now have a significant number of tweens and teens in our community to support.
Teens are tricky. There is no formula. More self-aware and self-conscious, some want to get as far away as possible from anything with a cancer label, some are interested in therapy, some want to volunteer, and some just want to blow off steam in a place safe from judgment. And some need something else entirely.
But being complicated doesn’t make helping adolescents less critical. Research shows that tweens and teens may be even more negatively and deeply impacted by the stress of cancer at home than their younger siblings. Not only do they have a deeper understanding of the situation and its dangers, but they are also likely to take on a heavier burden of household tasks and responsibilities.
If a teen you care about is struggling, here are some suggestions:
- Ask how you can help, and be specific. Instead of “What can I do?”, maybe ask “Is there anything I can get you that you need for school?”
- Be honest. If asked something you don’t know how to answer, simply say, “I don’t have an answer for that” (or similar). Don’t lie. You are not protecting them by saying something untrue.
- Offer fun distractions. Pop by with their favorite foods (and don’t be offended if they don’t want to eat with you) or tickets to a show they want to see.
- Encourage them to stay active in their existing groups that may serve as support systems such as scouts, music, theater, and sports.
Just to be clear, we are not therapists or social workers (although, co-founder and Jeremy’s sister Dr. Naomi Coleman is a clinical psychologist working with children and adolescents). We are a nonprofit organization that organizes events for children so they can let loose and have fun with other kids going through something similar. And we have been doing it for 14 years now. We were inspired by my daughter’s need as a little girl to meet another six-year-old with a daddy with chronic cancer, and the normalcy our kids enjoyed when our friends took them out for weekend hikes and picnics because Jeremy and I were too physically and emotionally drained to take them ourselves.
We started our teen program with the assumption that events are more fun, and there is a higher chance of connecting with one another if parents and younger siblings are not invited. After all, in times of crisis like serious illness, older children are required to look after their younger siblings more often. Recent teen-only events include laser tag, a rope-course park, a bike tour of Tel Aviv, and online meetings with young TV actors and video animators. And pizza makes every activity better, even our virtual ones.
We also added teen-friendly activities to our family fun days. At our recent Sukkoth event at the Balagan Activity Park near Yagur, as the younger children enjoyed the rides and climbing gyms, over 40 tweens and teens practiced Krav Maga in workshops at a separate section of the park.
If you know a teen coping with cancer or cancer loss at home, please send them our way – we want to help. We recently hired an experienced youth programming coordinator to expand and develop a dedicated program and support system for our growing number of teens. We are building our 2023 calendar now. To stay informed of our upcoming events, sign up for our mailing list. And if you have suggestions or collaboration ideas please reach out through our website.