Teens at the doctor’s office: developing independence

Teens are at a time of life that they need to develop independence. They need to master several things before leaving the nest. Allowing them to grow more independent with each passing year can help prepare them for life on their own. This includes letting them take charge of their healthcare in late teen years.

Teens are at a time of life that they need to develop independence. They need to master several things before leaving the nest, such as how to manage time, cook a simple but healthy meal, do simple home repairs, spend and save money wisely, and how to live with healthy habits. Allowing them to grow more independent with each passing year can help prepare them for life on their own. This includes letting them take charge of their healthcare in late teen years.

Independence at the doctor’s office

One important skill includes relying less on parents when they’re at the doctor’s office.

You don’t want them to show up at another health clinic for treatment without knowledge of their medical history. This is especially true for chronic issues, medications and drug allergies. Let them help fill out the paperwork and answer the questions from the nurse and doctor.

Teens need to learn how to summarize their concerns so the doctor can make a proper assessment. If parents do all the talking, they don’t learn how to do it themselves.

Questions, questions, questions!

Most parents have the best interest for their children at heart when they answer questions and want to be in the room for their teen’s visit. But if you really want to help them, it’s best to let them take more responsibility each year.

As kids get older, they should take more responsibility filling out forms and answering questions. They should even have an opportunity to spend time alone asking private questions.

Parents speak up then sit back.

We certainly want to hear parental concerns, but a teen should be allowed to do most of the talking. Over time this allows them to eventually visit a physician alone competently.

They will then be able to take care of their health when they move away from home and establish care with an adult doctor.

If they don’t know their medical history, current medications, allergies, or simply how to talk to a medical provider, they won’t be able to take care of themselves.

You won’t realize how much they don’t know unless they try to handle it themselves.

Let them fill out forms and ask if they need your help. You’ll learn what they don’t know and you can inform them as well as find a place for them to store that information for next time.

Privacy.

As kids get older, they need some time alone with the doctor at least yearly.

Even if they have nothing to hide, it’s a good idea to allow teens some private time alone with the physician. This allows them to develop a trusting relationship with the doctor. If something personal and private does develop, they are comfortable talking with that physician. This is one reason I strongly encourage a well visit once a year with the same person as much as possible. Routine visits allow a healthy doctor- patient trust to develop.

It’s hard as a parent to not know everything that your child talks to their doctor about. I know – I have two teens. And to complicate things, I work in the same office as their physician. I never ask her about my own kids unless I’m still in the room with them. I trust that she will take care of my kids and help to direct them into healthy healthcare decisions.

Teens should understand that they can talk to their physician openly without fear of judgement. While it is possible that the physician might ask to share the information, they usually will not if the teen does not allow it. Teens should be aware when the confidentiality will stand and when a physician must share their concerns. Most physicians will attempt to maintain the trust of a teen so that they will continue to discuss difficult health concerns. If the physician is afraid that the teen is at risk of being hurt or of hurting someone else, things change. We must ensure safety. This will mean other adults will learn of the issue, but the teen will be told first.

“But I’m the parent. I have a right to know.”

Many parents feel this way, but the reality is the law protects a teen’s privacy. Even when the parent carries the insurance and pays the bills, teens have the right to privacy.

And for good reason.

The problem is that if our kids don’t feel confident that the doctor will maintain confidentiality, they will not tell us important things that can help us help them. If they’re afraid to say that they’ve started vaping or that they are considering becoming sexually active, we can’t help them make smart and safe choices.

If they hide symptoms of an illness, whether it’s a sexually transmitted disease or depression, they won’t get the help they need.

We need them to be able to tell us those things that they don’t want their parent to know. It’s not that we want them to do these things, but we need to be able to help them stay as safe and healthy as possible.

We want them to talk with you, and you can certainly foster that at home. They still need to be able to be completely open with their physician without  the threat of a breach of confidence.

Be careful of assumptions.

It is natural to fear the worst if your child wants to talk to the doctor privately, but in the majority of cases it’s all pretty benign stuff that they want to talk about.

You will of course get bills from the insurance company that might suggest certain diagnoses or tests. We cannot verify or deny why those charges occur.

Let kids start taking responsibility at the doctor's office, but don't make presumptions when they need privacy.
Don’t make presumptions…

Don’t assume your child is having sex just because a pregnancy or STD test is done. There are many criteria that flag when a teen should have testing. Remember that guidelines are developed to not miss situations, so they are broad. For instance, many girls will get a pregnancy test done before certain procedures, even if they deny being sexually active. This is because we know that some kids lie and we don’t want to put an unborn child at risk, so all girls of a certain age will be tested before the procedure.

Encouraging communication.

Despite the fact that I will maintain confidentiality as required, I usually attempt to talk teens into talking to their parents.

If the teen agrees to us telling their parent together, it usually ends up bringing them closer as a family. This requires that the parents are able to not judge or punish a child for his or her decisions.

Teens often feel uncomfortable discussing it initially, but once they know that parents know whatever it is, they are often relieved. If the parent accepts the situation without harsh judgement, even if they are disappointed in their child, they can learn to work on things together.

If the parent responds inappropriately, it can damage the relationship. As with anything, if you can’t say something supportive, don’t say anything other than, “thank you for sharing. I need some time to think.” Give yourself time to reflect what you learn and then prepare what you will say.

They still might make bad choices.

Even with confidential communication, teens still will make bad choices.

The teen brain is well known to be impulsive and to not recognize consequences. We all know good teens who make bad choices. Caring adults will attempt to help the teen make smarter choices, but no one can change a teens behavior except the teen.

Be sure your teens know that you love them unconditionally. This will help them feel more comfortable coming to you if they need to talk. Let them know your expectations for behavior. If they open up to you about problems or bad situations, listen without judgement and offer help and support where you can. Be supportive and help them find ways to bring about positive change. There can be negative consequences, such as taking away their phone or not being allowed to go to a party, but do not belittle them. Belittling shuts the door of communication and they might not open it again.

Legal issues.

We legally cannot tell a parent about these things under most circumstances. State laws vary, but unless we think a child is in danger or will harm someone else, we must maintain privacy.

We know that teens have not established independence from parents fully. Teens usually still live under your roof and must abide by your rules. Parents usually support teens financially. But teens also are legally protected to be able to talk about sexual health, their feelings, and more without concern that parents will be told what is discussed.

There are exceptions to this confidentiality, which varies by state law. Typically if the teen is being abused, is involved in non-consensual sex, is at risk of self harm or if they are at risk for hurting others, the physician must notify others.

Watch them grow…

Parenting has its challenges, but in the end most parents want their kids to be healthy, happy, productive members of society. In order for this to happen, they have to allow their kids to gain a little more independence and accept a little more responsibility each year.

Enjoy the times!

Author: DrStuppy

I am a pediatrician and mother of two teens. I have a passion for sharing health related information.

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