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, 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!

Weight is Weighing on My Mind

Too much sugar is causing an epidemic of obesity in our kids. Even the ones who aren’t overweight are often less healthy due to food choices. Excess sugar consumption over time is linked to many health issues such as high cholesterol, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and it can trigger earlier puberty – leading to overall shorter adult height. Not to mention the psychological and social implications of bullying, depression, eating disorders, and more.

Back in the day…

Why is weight so much more of a problem now than it was years ago?

As a child I did not have a perfect diet, yet I was not overweight (and neither were my classmates) because we spent most waking moments outside if we weren’t in school.

My mother packed a dessert in every lunch box. We ate red meat most days. My mother usually put white bread and butter on the table at dinner. I drank 2% milk and ate ice cream every night.

But we walked to school– without a parent by the time I was in 1st grade. (gasp!)

There were only a couple tv channels, and Saturday morning was the only time we could watch tv.

We were able to ride bikes, go to a wooded area, play on a nearby playground, dig in the dirt, you name it – we found something to make it fun!

Update: I just read a fantastic blog from Dr. Alison Escalante that shows beautifully how she and her siblings were able to explore and learn as kids. Take a look at The Summer of No TV: Why Boredom Breeds Creativity Part 1.

Why is weight so much more of a problem now than it was years ago?
unhealthy foods
Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Kids need to eat healthy and move daily.

I think it’s a combination of what they’re eating and what they’re doing.

Today’s kids are shut up in the house after school watching one of many tv channels or playing video games.

Even those who are shuttled to activities get overall less exercise because it is structured differently than free play. They ride in the car to practice or class, then sit and wait for things to start. They might sit or stand while others are getting instruction.

Simply put: They eat a lot of processed and junk food and they don’t get to do active things at their own pace with their own creativity for as long as they want.

Shouldn’t we worry about them getting hurt?

I know parents are worried that their kids will get hurt or abducted if they play outside with friends, especially if they go out of sight from a parent. But I think in some ways we’re killing our kids slowly by allowing unhealthy habits to kick in.

The reality is that most kids won’t get hurt if they’re playing. Yes, some will. But if they play video games all day, they won’t get injured. They are likely to have long term problems though.

I’m seeing adult problems in young kids, such as Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hip/knee problems, and more. The poor kids who are overweight have the potential to suffer long term consequences.

What to do???

On one hand kids need to learn to make healthy choices to maintain a healthy body weight for height, but on the other hand you don’t want to focus so much on weight that they develop eating disorders. I think this is possible if we focus on the word “healthy” – not “weight”.

Starting at school age I ask kids at well visits if they think they are too heavy, too skinny, too short, or too tall. If they have a concern, I follow up with something along the line of, “How would you change that?” I’m often surprised by the answers, but I can use this very important information to guide how I approach their weight, height, and BMI. We talk about where they are on the graph, and healthy ways to either stay in a good place or how to get to a better BMI.

I focus on 3 things we all need to be healthy (not healthy weight, but healthy):

  1. Healthy eating (eat a plant and protein each meal and snack)
  2. Exercise (with proper safety equipment but that’s another topic!)
  3. Sleep (again, another topic entirely!)
Food is a part of our daily needs, but much more than that.

It’s a huge part of our lifestyle.

We have special meals for celebrations but on a day to day basis it tends to be more repetitive.

We all get into ruts of what our kids will eat, so that is what we prepare. The typical kid likes pizza, nuggets, fries, PB&J, burgers, mac and cheese, and a few other select meals.

If we’re lucky our kids like one or two vegetables and some fruits. We might even be able to sneak a whole grain bread in the mix.

If our family is busy we eat on the run– often prepared foods that are low in nutrition, high in fat and added sugars, and things our kids think taste good (ie things we won’t hear whining about).

We want our kids to be happy and we don’t want to hear they are hungry 30 minutes after the meal is over because they didn’t like what was served and chose not to eat, so we tend to cave in and give them what they want.

We as parents need to learn to stop trying to make our kids happy for the moment, but healthy for a lifetime.

There’s often a discrepancy between the child’s BMI (body mass index) and the parent’s perception of healthy.

The perception of calorie needs and actual calorie needs can be very mismatched. I have seen a number of parents who worry that their toddler or child won’t eat, so they encourage unhealthy eating unintentionally in a variety of ways:

  • turn on the tv and feed the child while the child is distracted
  • reward eating with dessert
  • refuse to let the child leave the table until the plate is empty
  • allow excessive milk “since at least it’s healthy”
  • allow snacking throughout the day
  • legitimize that a “healthy” snack of goldfish is better than cookies
Any of these are problematic on several levels.  Kids don’t learn to respond to their own hunger cues if they are forced to eat.  
If offered a choice between a favorite low-nutrition/high fat food and a healthy meal that includes a vegetable, lean protein, whole grain, and low fat milk, which do you think any self-respecting kid would choose?
If they’re only offered the healthy meal or no food at all, most kids will eventually eat because they’re hungry.
No kid will starve to death after 1-2 days of not eating.  
They can, however, over time slowly kill themselves with unhealthy habits.  

So what does your child need to eat?

Think of the calories used in your child’s life and how many they really need.  Calorie needs are based on age, weight, activity level, growing patterns, and more.
It’s too hard to count calories for most of us though.
If kids fill up on healthy options, they won’t be hungry for the junk.
Offer a plant and a protein for each meal and snack. Plants are fruits and vegetables. Proteins are in meats, nuts, eggs and dairy.
Don’t think that your child needs to eat outside of regular meal and snack times.
One of my personal pet peeves is the practice of giving treats during and after athletic games. It’s not uncommon for kids to get a treat at half time and after every game. Most teams have a schedule of which parent will bring treats for after the game.
Do parents realize how damaging this can be?  
  • A 50 pound child playing 15 minutes of basketball burns 39 calories.  Think about how many minutes your child actually plays in a game. Most do not play a full hour, which would burn 158 calories in that 50 pound child.
  • A 50 pound child burns 23 calories playing 15 minutes of t-ball, softball, or baseball.  They burn 90 calories in an hour.
  • A non-competitive 50 pound soccer player burns 34 calories in 15 min/135 per hour. A competitive player burns 51 calories in 15 min/ 203 in an hour.
  • Find your own child’s calories burned (must be at least 50 pounds) at CalorieLab.
Now consider those famous treats at games.
Many teams have a half time snack AND an after game treat.  Calories found on brand company websites or NutritionData:
  • Typical flavored drinks or juice range 50-90 calories per 6 ounce serving.
  • Potato chips (1 ounce) 158 calories (A common bag size is 2 oz… which is 316 calories and has 1/3 of the child’s DAILY recommended fat intake!)
  • Fruit roll up (28g) 104 calories
  • 1 medium chocolate chip cookie: 48 calories
  • Orange slices (1 cup): 85 calories
  • Grapes (1 cup): 62 calories
  • Apple slices (1 cup): 65 calories

So…Let’s say the kids get orange slices (a lot of calories but also good vitamin C, low in fat, and high in fiber) at half time, then a fruit drink and cookie after the game. That totals about 200 calories.

The typical 50 pound soccer player burned 135 calories in a one hour game. They took in more calories than they used.

They did get some nutrition out of the orange, but they also ate the cookie and fruit drink.

The cookie has fewer calories than other options but no nutritional value and a lot of added sugars.

The kids end up taking in many more calories than they consumed during play.

Water

What’s wrong with WATER? That’s what we should give kids to drink at games.

They should eat real food after the game if only they’re hungry.  Snacks are likely to decrease appetite for the next meal, so if they’re hungry give a mini-meal, not a sugar-filled, empty calorie treat every game.

There are many resources on the web to learn about healthy foods for both kids and parents. Rethink the way you look at how your family eats.

Simple suggestions:

      • Offer a fruit and vegetable with a protein at every meal and snack. Fill the plate with various colors! (As I tell the kids: eat a plant and a protein every time you eat ~ meals and snacks!)
      • Picky kids? Hide the vegetable in sauces, offer dips of yogurt or cheese, let kids eat in fun new ways – like with a toothpick. Don’t forget to lead by example and eat your veggies!
      • Buy whole grains.
      • Choose lean proteins.
      • Don’t skip meals.
      • Make time for sleep.
      • Get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day!
      • Eat together as a family as often as possible.
      • Turn off the tv during meals. Don’t use distracted eating!
      • Encourage the “taste a bite without a fight” rule for kids over 3 years. But don’t force more than one bite.
      • Don’t buy foods and drinks with a lot of empty calories. Save them for special treats. If they aren’t in the home, they can’t be eaten!
      • Drink water instead of juice, flavored drinks, or sodas.
      • Limit portions on the plate to fist sized. Keep the serving platters off the table.
      • Eat small healthy snacks between meals. Think of fruit, vegetable slices, cheese, and nuts for snacks. I tell kids all the time: eat a plant and a protein every time you eat – both meals and snacks. Think of snacks as mini-meals!