By Alla Goldburt, M.D.
Family Medicine and Obstetrics in Malden, Mass.
The tween and teen years can be tough on kids and parents, but open, honest conversations with their doctor can help.
The tween and teen years are a period of intense physical, mental and emotional growth – sometimes exciting and sometimes stressful for teens and their parents. And today’s youth have access to a constant stream of misinformation from friends, social media, TV, websites – the list goes on.
But parents play a very important role during this part of a child’s life. Your teen still needs you – even if they won’t always admit it. They need and deserve accurate information about their health and their bodies, and you can offer guidance as they navigate new social interactions.
Help your teen grow into a healthy, happy adult by initiating conversation, listening without judgment, and fostering a relationship with a trusted medical professional. Find a family doctor near you.
1. Start a conversation with your tween about their bodies and social lives
Girls begin puberty as early as 8 and boys start around 10. Start these conversations before they or their friends begin going through changes so they’re aware of them. I know firsthand what happens when you’re unprepared. My parents were uncomfortable talking about puberty, and when I got my first period, I had no idea what was going on. I thought I would bleed forever!
Be honest and use real words for body parts. Reassure them that what they’re experiencing is normal. Today’s media portrays a hypersexualized version of growing up, so it can be difficult for teens to know what’s “normal.”
I find if you ask open-ended questions and truly listen, the floodgates will open. Questions could include:
- What’s going on at school or with friends?
- What changes are you noticing in your body?
- Are your friends going through the same changes?
- Do you have questions about anything you’re feeling, hearing, seeing or reading?
I know these conversations can be embarrassing. But your child may feel relieved you brought it up so they don’t have to. Share how you felt when you were their age. Work these topics into daily conversation. You could use things they see on TV or in the news to jumpstart a conversation.
If you find you don’t know how to approach a subject or just don’t have the right words, let their doctor know. We can help facilitate these conversations.
Along with their physical health, ask about their emotional and social health.
- Do you have friends who you can trust?
- Are your friends treating you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe?
- Have you been put in situations that make you uncomfortable?
Let them know they are in a safe place where they can talk freely. And then listen. Don’t wait until your teen or pre-teen comes to you with questions about their changing body. You may be waiting a long time!
2. Really listen when they talk to you
Sometimes it’s more important to listen than to talk. Your teen likely wants to talk with you, but if you’re not truly listening, they may shut down over time. Show you’re listening by following these tips:
- Avoid distractions: Turn off the TV and put down the phone. You can make time later to chop vegetables or perform whatever other chores are waiting.
- Express interest: Teens’ stories can seem insignificant at times. But do you remember how you felt about life and friends when you were their age? If you listen and take an interest in their life, they may open up about more important subjects.
- Watch your body language: Show you’re paying attention by facing your teen and making eye contact. Lean forward and nod to show you understand. Don’t look out the window, roll your eyes, or audibly sigh.
- Listen without judgment: If you start to yell or lecture before your teen finishes telling their story, they won’t want to talk with you in the future. I know instinctively you want to jump in, but hold back and listen without judgment or reaction. Be calm, practice empathy, and create a safe space for them to explain what’s going on and what they’re feeling.
3. Foster a relationship between your teen and a health professional
This is crucial to living a healthy life. It should begin in childhood and develop further in the teen years.
I try to create a safe place for my teenage patients to ask questions about what’s going on in their bodies and their lives. We start these visits by talking with the teen and their parent or guardian. We discuss healthy choices and what they can expect physically in the future.
Then I talk privately with the teen. I know this may make parents nervous. You may think, “Whatever they can tell you, they can tell me.” But there’s a fine line between openness and allowing privacy. It’s not about trying to keep secrets; it’s about building a relationship with a trusted adult outside the family with whom they’re comfortable seeking help and support.
I let my young patients know that even though they’re minors, there are certain areas within Massachusetts law in which they legally allowed to make decisions regarding their care without direct parental consent, including:
- Drug and alcohol services
- Certain mental health issues
- Pregnancy testing
- Testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections
I respect teens’ ability to make their own decisions, but I always encourage them to talk with their parents. If they don’t know how to start that conversation, I’m always happy to help.
I also talk with teens about their emotional health and social groups. Teens don’t always have the language to express their feelings, and sometimes stress and anxiety manifest in physical ways. For example, it’s common for teens to come in with recurring, unexplained abdominal pain or headaches. This prompts me to ask questions about their lives and friends.
Ultimately, we don’t want our children to shy away from getting the help and support they need. And while it may feel at times that your teen is pulling away from you, you might be surprised to find out how much they still need you!
As the 2017/2018 school year approaches, now is a perfect time to introduce your teen to a trusted medical provider. The information the provider will share with you and your teen can prove invaluable as they manage their changing bodies and social situations.
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Tags: children's health, family health, family medicine, malden