How to Break Bad News to Your Teen

Wondering how to share sensitive information with a teenager? Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, shares a personal story, and a recent study indicating the best way to share sensitive information with an older child or young adult.

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read
Episode #348

I don't have young adult children yet, but the issue of disclosing difficult information to a young adult has happened in my life. A few years ago, my best friend’s husband, Dan, was diagnosed with stage-four glioblastoma (terminal brain cancer). My friend, Linda, wanted to shield their only son, 17-years-old, from the details and realities of the diagnosis. In fact, she was struggling with the realities herself. Although she couldn't hide that Dan was sick, she chose not to share much information with their son, John. We talked about it, and I said that I thought the right thing to do was to tell John, because of his maturity. (I didn’t have any research to back me up, though.) But I told her that, of course, she needed to do what she thought was best. 

See Also: How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Tragically, just a few months after we talked, Linda suddenly and unexpectedly died of heart disease. Her husband, still deteriorating from the terminal brain cancer, was then forced to share all the details of his diagnosis and treatment with John. You can only imagine how difficult that must have been considering the situation. However, I watched as their father-son relationship deepened and grew as Dan became more and more sick. Of course, this is a horrible situation—but horrible, difficult things do happen in our lives.

I'm sure there are many parents who aren't quite sure how to handle this situation. And I could only give Linda advice based on my gut feelings. But now there has been an actual study that shows the best way to share sensitive information with young adult children.

Do These 3 Things

Communications experts from four prestigious universities joined forces to study the question of how to discuss difficult topics with young adult children. They discovered three qualities that actually strengthened the parent-child bond. Those three qualities were candor, access to details, and relating as peers.


When the teens (or a little older) felt their parents were being completely honest and transparent, not trying to whitewash or candy-coat things, they rated the conversation as more successful. When they felt the parents were trying to hide something, or later found out the parents had not been entirely truthful, the response was negative. One respondent even used the word “devastated.” Negative indeed!


The teens and young adults wanted their questions answered. Those who had access to the information they wanted were much more satisfied than those who were told “no questions.” These young people had very unfavorable attitudes about their conversations. I noticed something interesting, though. Those who received information received answers to their questions, not full access to everything. As a mother, I think it’s possible to give TOO much information, overwhelming or frightening the young person. According to the study, these young people were satisfied that all their questions were answered and that their parents kept them informed on an ongoing basis. That was enough.

See Also: 4 Difficult Conversation Starters


Finally, the young people who had the most satisfactory responses were those whose parents treated them like adults, respecting their intelligence and maturity. “Being talked down to” created a very negative reaction. Those children whose parents spoke to them as peers felt respected and trusted.

These three factors contributed to the successful communication of difficult information. Those families that shared in this way found that they became closer through the experience. I certainly saw that with Linda’s husband and son. It was so painful to watch those final months, but also quite inspiring. I was so moved at the funeral, when John showed such strength and maturity. In the reception line, I hardly knew what to say. All I could do was stand there with tears in my eyes, and he comforted me: “It’s alright, Aunt Lisa. It’ll be alright."

I know Linda and Dan must be so proud of their son. He showed himself able to handle the information and grow into an even stronger young man. I hope you never have to share difficult information like that with your children. But if you do, be sure to be direct, honest, and respectful, and hopefully you, too, will find a silver lining.

This is Lisa B. Marshall changing organizations, changing lives, and changing the world through better communication. If you’d like to learn more about leadership, influence, and communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk. As always, your success is my business.    

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.