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Supporting Your Teen Through Health Concerns

Sitting in the waiting room while my daughter has yet another ultrasound, I can’t help but travel back six years when we first found ourselves at this same hospital. Back then, we were surprised to receive a diagnosis of Idiopathic Adolescent Scoliosis, and what followed was three years of appointments, two surgeries, and countless physio appointments, along with developing skills in waiting, worrying, and advocating. While my hair is greyer, my daughter bears the scars bravely.

Here we are again, in the waiting room that always fills me with dread and anxious feelings. This time we are exploring why my daughter has had abdominal pain, nausea, bloating and other discomfiting bodily disturbances for the past two months. Once we ruled out normal life things, we moved on to bloodwork, stool samples, an x-ray, and an ultrasound. Enter the awareness of gallstones. After a trip to the ER on a particularly pain-filled evening, a general surgeon, hesitant to perform unnecessary surgery on a teenager, felt certain that the current condition is not related to the gallbladder. A time-consuming red herring.

Another round of bloodwork and ultrasounds all returned normal. So now, another referral and waiting for an appointment with a gastroenterologist and some celiac testing. And no answers. Just ongoing pain, discomfort, and frustration.

Throughout these past two months, I’ve watched my daughter move on two different tracks: she’s having a physical challenge on one, and on the other, she’s navigating her daily life with curiosity, courage, and the creativity of a sixteen-year-old. She takes risks and doesn’t shy away from going after what she wants. I watch her with marvel as she navigates these challenging times with openness, humour, and intelligence, mixed with regular doses of adolescent sarcasm, requests [demands] for help, and at times, tears of futility. While I have struggled to sleep, and worry constantly, she just keeps going. I remember that my support makes a difference and that what she needs is my constant belief in her strength and resilience, and attending to what is needed in the moment. I keep myself (and my worries) in check as I dig into my mindfulness practice and remind myself that I have the tools to help her get through this.

Here are five simple ways you can support your teenager through medical challenges:

· Your teenager may be experiencing a range of emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, or frustration. It's important to create a safe space for your teenager to express their feelings and emotions without judgment. Listen to them actively and validate their feelings. At the same time, validate your own feelings! Sharing your fears, frustration, and sadness with other adults is necessary to give you the emotional space to stay attentive with your teen. This helps them (and you) feel less alone and more supported during this challenging time.

· Medical situations can be overwhelming and confusing for teenagers, especially if they are not familiar with medical terminology. Keep your teenager informed about their situation, whether it is a diagnosis, treatment plan, and/or what to expect during their recovery. This can help them feel more in control of their situation and reduce anxiety. I’ve learned (through trial and many errors) that timing is important when talking about what’s going on. Make sure your teen wants to talk about it – take their direction, while also not shying away from the truth.

· While medical distress can disrupt your teenager's routine, it's important to help them maintain a sense of normalcy. Encourage them to continue their hobbies, see their friends, and participate in activities they enjoy. This helps develop skills of keeping perspective and not allowing oneself to be swallowed whole by things beyond one’s control.

· Depending on the severity of their condition, your teenager may need practical support such as help with homework, making social plans, or assistance with daily tasks. Offer to help in any way they need and remind your teenager that it's okay to ask for help when needed.

· Medical distress can take a toll on both physical and mental health. Encourage your teenager to prioritize their self-care by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in exercise or relaxation techniques. While it might be tempting to suggest yoga or meditation, don’t be surprised if your teen rolls their eyes. Maybe relaxation for them is listening to their favourite songs, or practicing getting their liquid eyeliner even on both sides – don’t judge, just let them relax. This can help them feel more in control and improve their overall well-being.

· Counselling can be really helpful during the adolescent years regardless of health scenarios. Somatic and expressive arts therapies can help teens learn to process feelings without the awkward and often, cognitive-focused talk therapy. If your teen is open to it, help them find someone they feel comfortable with and then let them be.

So, while my daughter and I wait to find out what’s next, it helps me to remember that we’ve done this before, and that day by day, there are many things we can choose for ourselves to live a healthy and active life.

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