A recent article in The Huffington Post about compassion got me thinking about why support groups are so important for teens facing adversity. And, for the purview of this blog in particular, why support groups work so well for teens whose parents have cancer.
In a small study, researchers found that we feel compassion more intensely when we share common ground with that person. “… if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves–even a relatively trivial one–the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly,” wrote researcher and Northeastern University psychology professor David DeStefano, Ph.D., in “The New York Times.”
It follows that compassion comes more naturally when a person can relate to what the victim is feeling from personal experience. He or she has been there.
By the time you’re an adult, a number of life experiences have likely accrued under your belt–unless you’ve been inordinately lucky! You’ve lost loved ones and friends. You’ve probably been very ill, maybe broken some bones. You’ve experienced heartbreak and hardship alike. So wouldn’t it follow that the older you get, and the more life experiences you’ve had, the easier it is for you to relate to and feel compassion for others?
If there’s any credence to my theory, then that leaves the teenager trying to feel or elicit compassion in a tough spot. They probably lack the life experiences that come with age.
If you’re 15 years old and your friend tells you their mom has breast cancer, it’s unlikely that you have had a similar experience that allows you to really understand what your friend is feeling. And if you’re the teen whose mom has cancer, you kind of know that your friend has no idea, and maybe feel like they can’t relate to you like you need them to. Everything they say will, in the word of pre-Young Adult author J.D. Salinger, seem phony.
That’s why it’s so important for teens to find other teens who can relate because they actually have a parent who has cancer, too. I have witnessed the deep relief and giddiness that comes when a teen finds another teen like them at Camp Kesem, a network of camps across the country where every camper has a parent with cancer. Finally, these teens no longer feel as though they’re surrounded by misunderstanding. What a relief!
It’s for these reasons that it’s so important for teens facing a parent’s cancer to find support groups to plug into–or, with the help of their parents, to try and create them if none exist. Online communities and forums provide another option in the absence of these groups, too.
I wish I would have sought out a support group when my mom had breast cancer so that when I shared my thoughts and fears and ended my sentences with “you know?”, my confidants could have nodded and truly meant it.