Helping a teen cope with a chronic illness

Posted on 31 December 2019

Adolescence is a tricky period at the best of times. If your youngster is coping with a chronic illness –  such as asthma, diabetes, anxiety or epilepsy – they will be dealing with additional challenges. Here’s how to ease their path.

As Charon Streit, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Mediclinic Gariep, explains, the main developmental task during adolescence is for your child to develop their own identity. “Challenges that are normally very prominent at this time include peer pressure (being accepted), assuming their own set of values and refining their inter-personal skills.”

If your teen suffers from  a chronic medical condition, they might experience additional peer-related difficulties, such as having to take medication at certain times, not being able to take part in all activities or having to miss school because of medical appointments.

“Stigma and lack of knowledge from peers when it comes to their condition can also contribute to their dilemma,” Streit adds. “Your child might still be struggling to accept and understand their condition, especially if they have been recently diagnosed.”

To ease the journey, guard against over-protection, over-permissiveness, or even over-emotional reactions to your teen’s diagnosis. Instead, it’s vital to equip yourself and your teen with as much information about the condition as possible. “They should know what to avoid and what is medically permissible,” Streit says. “At the same time, it’s important for them to understand that the condition does not define them.”

In the process of helping your teen to accept and take ownership of their condition, don’t focus on the ‘worst scenario’ – rather look at what is still right (such as being able to take part in sport if they follow their asthma regime; or being able to go away with friends for the weekend if they are vigilant about monitoring their blood sugar levels if they have Type 1 diabetes).

“Discuss the benefits of sticking to the treatment versus the consequences of not taking medication regularly,” Streit suggests. “If rebellion is perceived around the treatment, it is essential to keep communicating with the teenagers. Instead of ‘forcing’ them to comply, ask their doctor – or other teenagers who are in the same boat – to explain the necessity of treatment compliance. In addition, encourage them to disclose their condition to one or two close friends so these people are able to assist if your teen suffers from an acute asthma attack, hypo- or hyper-glycaemia or a panic attack.”

Streit adds that it’s important not to expose your teen by admonishing or reminding them to take their medication in front of their peers. “The role of a good support system can never be over-emphasised,” she says. “The family is the most important support system – and siblings should understand why more attention is seemingly sometimes given to the affected teen.”

Dynamic, open communication between all members of the family will help your teen get used to their situation while taking ownership of their condition. “Remember, things do get better and more manageable,” Streit says.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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