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Why Won't My Teenager Talk To Me About My Diagnosis?

Dear Kristen,

My teenage daughter doesn’t want to hear anything about my cancer; it upsets her and she prefers to pretend I’m fine. She actually gets angry when it comes up or if I mention being tired, my hair falling out, etc. It’s strange not to talk about something that’s so big in my life, and I’m tired of pretending there’s nothing wrong just to appease her. Also, it would feel good to get even a little bit of sympathy or empathy from her. Any suggestions?


Dear Reader,

It sounds to me like both you and your daughter have emotional needs that might be met if you can have some loving but difficult conversations. The root of anger is fear, so, probably, underneath your daughter’s behavior lies her fear of losing you. And you probably have a desire to be seen and loved and supported through these difficult times.

Your needs and hers are so natural.

I wrote a book about how to navigate challenging topics with people you care about and will offer some suggestions on how you and your daughter might do this. This process can work really well if both people can “stick to the script,” which is designed to keep emotions in check while allowing you to say how you truly feel.

The acronym for the six-step process is ISPEAQ (like “I speak”). I’ve attached a fill-in-the-blank template so you can plan out what you want to say beforehand. By thinking it through before you talk, you’ll improve your chances of a positive outcome.

I is for Intentions and “I” language

First things first; you want to know exactly what your intention is for the conversation. Make it positive, like having more open and empathetic communication with your daughter.

When you get to the point of talking, stay away from using the word “you” as much as possible because it can put the other person on the defensive.

S is for Suitable Setting

Choose a calm time and place to talk, ideally somewhere you won’t be interrupted by cell phones, people, or other distractions.

P is for Positive Preface

The first thing you want to say is something positive that will resonate with the other person and show them that your intentions are good and loving; that you see the good in them. You might say to your daughter, for instance, “I admire the way you seem able to handle my illness without getting overwhelmed.” If that doesn’t feel 100% genuine, find something that does. She’ll know if you’re faking it.

E is for Explicit Example

Next, refer to a specific incident that upset you. Avoid the tendency to generalize, which can easily deteriorate into her saying,” that is not what happened,” and pitting you two against each other. A specific example might be, “When you got up and left the table when I was talking about the treatment I had today;” if she did that, she can’t argue about the facts.

A is for Adversely Affected

Next, say how the explicit example made you feel. So, “When you got up and left the table when I was talking about the treatment I had today, I felt sad and ignored and unheard.” (Note this is all done in “I” language. No one can argue that your feelings are not valid — they are.)

Q is for what you reQuire going forward and whether the other person has Questions

This is where you say what change you’d like to see and then invites the other person into the conversation. Ideally, they will also have worked through the ISPEAQ template and be prepared to calmly tell you what they saw happen, how it made them feel, and what they need going forward.

~ ~ ~

Yes, this might feel a bit scripted, but that can help us keep our difficult conversations on track instead of being derailed with emotional tangents and becoming heated in the moment. ISPEAQ is based on deep theory in non-violent communications and mediation techniques and has worked wonders with many people in families and in professional settings. It truly does give you a better chance to get close to the people you care about, even when a difficult subject matter arises.

I’d love to know how it goes if you use this framework to talk to your daughter!

Kristen xo

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