Episode 103 | A Talk with an Expert: Kat Harrison on Living with Medical Challenges, Disability, Mental Health, and Chronic Illness

Episode 103 | A Talk with an Expert: Kat Harrison on Living with Medical Challenges, Disability, Mental Health, and Chronic Illness

Podcast Show Notes

For today’s 12 minute talk, I’m speaking with Kat Harrison. At the end of 2021, I shared Kat’s episode in which she talked about what it was like being a teenager with chronic illness. During that episode, we touched on what helped her the most when she was a teenager in the hospital and how to support adolescents coping with different medical or mental challenges. I’m so excited to share this talk with you today so you can be more prepared when you’re talking to your own teenager or working in the field with adolescents.  

In this episode, we talk about…

[2:46] Kat’s background

Kat Harrison is a chronic illness advocate as well as a writer. She lives with a variety of chronic illnesses and a disability, and you can read more about her story here.

[3:19] How parents can empower their teens living with medical and mental health challenges

Kat feels very passionate about empowering teens, because she feels like they are often the forgotten generation. They are in a unique situation between being talked to like an adult, but sometimes being treated like a kid. Teens need to process things in their own ways, and those may be different from how a younger child would process things. Kat’s main piece of advice is that you should always talk with your teen, rather than at them or around them.

For Kat, one of the most frustrating things about being a teen with mental and medical challenges was that she sometimes felt that conversations at appointments were happening around her. It was as if she wasn’t there, and she felt like she had no autonomy in her care. Kat believes that self-advocacy is an art form, and it is something she is still working on today. You never stop growing in your self-advocacy as a patient, and Kat encourages teens starting to hone those skills. They are more than capable of involving themselves in their appointments.

If appropriate, parents should consider how they can let their teen drive appointments. They should ask their questions, clarify their needs, and talk about their symptoms and experiences. Including them in that way creates a better dynamic and decreases the potential for a power struggle. While medical professionals are put on a pedestal, Kat also wants patients to know that they have more rights than they realize.

[5:26] Planning for appointments

Parents, of course, should still involve themselves in the appointments and make sure their questions and concerns are addressed as well. Doing a pre-appointment rundown of what you want to talk about and what it might look like with your teen would be helpful. After the appointment, you can talk about how it went and what changes might need to be made for next time.

In the pre-appointment segment, a parent can let the teen know that she might pull the doctor aside or suggest that the teen go into the waiting room while the parent talks to the doctor. Teenagers often want to feel involved in the decision-making process, and they want be able to share their experiences as the patient.

[8:17] Preventing a diagnosis from becoming an identity

If your teen has a serious diagnosis or something that they will be wrestling with for a while, Kat suggests not talking about health and medical care 24/7. In the chronic illness world, there is a very blurry line where your diagnosis can become your identity if you are not intentional about this. As a teen who is still trying to figure yourself out, your identity is very messy. Kat shares that it can be very dangerous if all conversations revolve around the condition.  It is easy to lose yourself in it.  

Developmentally, teens are in a phase of life where they are trying to establish their identities. As people, we want to be seen as more than just one or two things about ourselves – and that includes mental and physical illnesses.

[10:02] Mental health

Caring for mental health is more nuanced than just asking your teen how they feel. It is important to realize that no matter the physical condition or diagnosis, it will affect someone mentally. It will affect them in ways you can see as well as in ways you may not see. Proactive conversations about how your teen feels can be important, but it is also important to respect their boundaries. If they don’t feel like talking, they may need to process in a different way.

In addition, Kat encourages parents to limit toxic positivity. It is healthy to allow teens to feel whatever they are feeling. We need to normalize the idea that depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges can absolutely accompany a serious diagnosis. Saying things like, “It could be worse,” or, “It will get better,” does not tend to help teens and can actually harm them in some situations.

[11:41] Asking your teen how they want to be supported

Parents can make the mistake of assuming that they know the best way to support their child, and in fact it would be better to ask them how they want to be supported. At different points they may need to feel safe, to be distracted, to see their friends, to engage in extra family time, or to request special meals. Seeking their opinions makes them feel autonomous. They feel like they have a say, as opposed to being guided through an experience that they did not want to be in.

[13:04] Kat’s books

Kat has written two picture books, and you can find them anywhere books are sold. Check out the links below for more information:

Surgery on Sunday

Migraine and Mia

Connect with Kat:



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Child Life On Call is a community of parents and professionals that share ideas, stories and resources to help YOU navigate your child’s unique experiences. We give you strategies to support yourself and your family through life’s challenges. We are so glad you are here.

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