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Go Ask Mom

Study: Teens need more independence in doctor's office

Posted January 12, 2016

Our goal as parents is to raise confident and independent kids who will lead a healthy, happy and productive life on their own without us. But, according to a new study, parents aren't giving their teens the reins in one critical place: the doctor's office.

In September, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked parents of teens ages 13 to 18 to describe their involvement in their teens’ healthcare visits.

The poll found that only about 15 percent of parents reported that their teen would discuss health problems independently at a routine check-up; two-thirds of parents complete health history forms without involving their teen; and only 5 percent said their teens would ask questions independently.

The study cited the parent's top reason for not involving their teens in discussing health problems: The parents said their own teens aren't comfortable in that role. But researchers pointed out that maybe teens aren't comfortable in that role because they aren't given the chance.

"When parents step in to manage the healthcare interaction, teens do not have the opportunity to develop confidence and comfort in having discussions with the provider, asking questions about their condition or treatment, and taking responsibility for their own health," the report says.

Researchers recommended that parents step back and give their teens a voice in the doctor's office.

I checked in with Dr. Rachael Hollifield with Rex Family Practice of Wakefield to learn more about what she's seeing in her local practice and get some tips for how parents can better help prepare their teens for these health conversations. Here is our email Q&A.

Go Ask Mom: What are you seeing in your practice? Who is driving the conversations when teens come in for check ups or sick visits?

Dr. Hollifield: In my experience, the parents usually start the conversation and then try to defer to their teen to continue the conversation, but there are plenty of parents who try to tell the whole story themselves. There are also plenty of teens who refuse to offer any information and defer completely to the parent.

GAM: Why should teens be driving this conversation more than they are now? Why do you suspect parents are reluctant to hand over the reins?

Dr. Hollifield: Doctors need to be able to identify risk-taking behavior in teens. The best way to do this is for the doctor to have a rapport with the teen and to interview the teen alone. If teens are already used to talking with their doctor one-on-one or even just driving the conversation, this is more easily done.

Parents can be reluctant for many reasons. Having the teen meet one-on-one with the doctor is invaluable to their care and we always encourage open communication between teens and their parents.

GAM: At what point should a teen meet with their doctor alone?

Dr. Hollifield: Middle school is a great time for teens to start meeting one-on-one with their doctor for their yearly physical. It’s important to prepare the teen and parent at the start of the visit that there will be a section of the visit for just the teen and the doctor. The parent, of course, is able to meet one-on-one with the doctor as well, but what is shared between the teen and the doctor is confidential, except in cases where major or impending harm to any person is involved (i.e. abuse, suicide, homicide).

GAM: What are your tips for helping parents and teens on this issue? How can teens be more comfortable asking their own questions and how can parents do better?

Dr. Hollifield: Teens can write down their questions ahead of time. Remind teens that they have confidentiality with their doctor and in areas where it can’t remain confidential, explain why. Remind parents this is an important aspect of their teens’ care and growth.

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  • Stacie Hagwood Jan 15, 2016
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    I switched both my daughters over to a female family physician when they were in the 4th grade, so they could establish a long-term relationship with her. Further, as they grew into their teens, I would leave the room a few minutes before the end of the visit, so that she could discuss with my daughter anything my daughter wanted to talk about. It felt a little weird to "let go" like that, but I thought that it was more important that my daughters felt like they could have honest communication without fear of a mother's disapproval.