Helping Teens Through the Healing Process

When we think of supporting our teens and tweens through the healing process, what first comes to mind may be soothing their emotional wounds—the inevitable disappointments, rejections, and losses that they will encounter as they grow up. Finding ways to deal with their physical pain may seem a more straightforward and intuitive prospect. Yet it is important to recognize that physical healing can be equally challenging for teens—but in very different ways than recovering from emotional injuries. This brutal winter, some teens in my practice are on their third or fourth cold, struggling to fight debilitating respiratory infections, or suffering from chronic Lyme Disease. For several months, I’ve watched others go through grueling physical therapy to rehabilitate serious injuries.

Being physically debilitated as a result of illness or injury is stressful for anyone, but especially for developing adolescents. The good news is that supporting kids’ recovery offers us a chance to encourage them to develop lifelong skills. In fact, the silver lining of going through the healing process is that its powerful lessons can better prepare teens and tweens to overcome hurdles in the future—in other words, to make them more resilient. Here’s how you can facilitate this:

Empathize

As usual, the first step is to see the experience through the eyes of your teen. To you, a garden-variety cold may be no big deal, something you’d push through to tackle whatever is on your agenda. But to an acutely self-conscious teen, coming down with a cold might “catastrophically” end a dream. You might hear, for example, “How can I possibly try out for choir with a sore throat?” or “I can’t go to practice because I can’t breathe, and if I don’t go to practice Coach won’t let me play on Saturday.” What you might not hear is, “No way I can ask so-and-so to the party with this disgusting red nose and swollen eyes” or “Here goes my chance to meet up with so-and-so Friday night.”

Understanding what an illness or injury means to them is key to expressing empathy and offering support. Consider these common adolescent issues, as well:

1. Bodies in flux. Bodily changes (or lack thereof) may already be causing problems. As kids shoot up with growth spurts, their centers of gravity may shift, making them less balanced. Their sense of where their bodies are in space (proprioception) may be off, resulting in or exacerbating clumsiness. Injuring themselves can reinforce kids’ vulnerabilities and self-doubt—not to mention, shake up the typical adolescent mindset of being invincible.

2. Lack of control. Teens and tweens, who often feel at the mercy of their parents and teachers, crave being more in charge of their lives. Getting sick—sometimes repeatedly—can feel as if their own immune systems are sabotaging them, sapping the little control they do have.

3. Disrupted routines. Most young people are comforted by consistency and predictability. The occasional sick day (or mental health day) is often a fun respite, but being ill for days on end grows old quickly. Extended school absences for illnesses or injuries are upsetting and disorienting.

4. Moodiness. Adolescence is already notorious for mood swings. Add the typical ups and downs of healing, which is rarely linear, and you get an emotional roller coaster. Kids who feel chronically sick or endure long-lasting physical pain often get demoralized. With the powerful mind-body connection, there is often an emotional component to many illnesses and conditions and, in turn, stress, anxiety, and depression can greatly impact recovery.

5. Fear of missing out. With absences, teens usually fear—and rightly so—making up piles of homework assignments and exams while catching up with new lessons. At a time when young people most need peer attention and approval, they are also apprehensive about not getting the stories and in-jokes their friends will be talking about when they return. Fear of missing out or, in teen speak, FOMO, is often exacerbated by social media showing your sick or bed-ridden teen photos of all that they are missing. Those who become truly isolated are at greater risk for becoming depressed.

6. Inactivity. The rest required to recover from physical illnesses and injuries prevents kids from being active. This eliminates opportunities to have fun, release tension, be with their peers, and reap the benefits of feel-good endorphins.

7. Independence curtailed. Just when teens want to be self-sufficient, illnesses and injuries often mean they need more help—sometimes even with basic tasks such as eating and bathing. Having to depend on parents again causes them to “feel like a baby,” which is humiliating, anxiety-provoking, and disheartening.

Teen Reactions

Insights into these developmental issues can help you understand your teens’ common—and highly exasperating—reactions to the healing process. It isn’t surprising, for example, that compliance with medical directives is often problematic. What better way to demonstrate autonomy than to stage a little rebellion by refusing (or, more often, “forgetting”) to take prescribed medication, throwing away crutches before a leg is fully healed, or going back to school while still contagious? I’ve seen teens at physical therapy act out their frustration by fooling around or not doing their exercises correctly, making me wonder what shenanigans they must pull at home.

Teens and tweens, who are still learning to manage emotions, do all sorts of thing to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For this reason, many deny or minimize the seriousness of what they’re going through. A 16-year-old girl in therapy because of tertiary Lyme Disease acted as if she wasn’t aware of her neurological deficits or real limitations. Others cope with feelings of vulnerability by acting far more confident than they actually are. A middle school student in intensive physical therapy after a life-threatening injury and extensive surgery calls himself “Stud Muffin” and authoritatively spews facts without appearing to notice—or to care—that they’re blatantly untrue.

While some teens refuse to accept the help they truly need, preferring to struggle needlessly, still others regress, becoming infantile and unreasonably demanding. This is when it’s helpful to remind yourself that these difficult behaviors are, thankfully, temporary. As they recover and return to their lives, teens become themselves once again.

What They Can Learn

These are some of the skills and lessons teens can learn that will serve them well in the long run, helping them to be resilient in the face of adversity:

1. Paying attention to their bodies. Healing can heighten teen’s awareness of how their minds and bodies are inextricably connected. Most important, the more they pay attention to what their bodies are trying to tell them—such as when to rest or to back off from exercise—the faster their progress.

2. Resisting impulses/Focusing on longer-term goals. If teens give in to urges for immediate gratification—for example, to ditch a knee brace or cheat on a medical diet—they may suffer setbacks. Successful healing requires good judgment and self-discipline.

3. Persistence of effort. When they don’t improve right away, some teens want to quit their physical exercises, which are often time-consuming and painful. But those who persist learn the value of practicing patience and staying the course. They see that some just things take time.

4. Better self-care. Healing can prompt teens to respect their own bodies. More aware of their strengths as well as vulnerabilities, they can be appropriately self-protective. It’s a sign of maturity when they say, “I always get sick after sleepovers, so I can’t have them during mid-terms” or “With my knees, I need to warm up longer than most people.”

5. Maintaining hope. Because healing follows an unpredictable course, teens come to realize they’re able to weather the inevitable ups and downs and emerge intact at the other end. It’s not that they don’t have their moments–-to which they’re entitled—but they’ll eventually bounce back. This positive mindset motivates them to do what’s necessary to recover.

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Recovery, though often painful and protracted, can become a model for helping teens to cope effectively with many other kinds of injuries, emotional as well as physical. Through this process, they learn about how they tend to react, what’s beneficial, and also what doesn’t serve them well. Plus, first-hand experience with the healing process can make them more understanding, empathic, and helpful when their friends, roommates, colleagues, and family members go through such experiences.

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