How to Empower Teens to Manage Their Health

How to Empower Teens to Manage Their Health

Shanna is wearing blue and is smiling at the camera. She is outside.

Shanna Garza, MD works at Girls to Women and Young Men’s Health and Wellness, a multidisciplinary medical practice in North Dallas dedicated to the physical and emotional needs of teenagers and young people age 10-25. She lives in her hometown of McKinney, TX with her husband and two children. She will be leading a new McKinney location of Girls to Women and Young Men’s Health, opening February 2020. Please call 972-733-6565 for an appointment or visit the practice website. Dr. Garza is active on social media and can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

As an Adolescent Medicine physician, I work to empower my patients to manage their own health, and as a parent, you can encourage this process as well. Many patients start coming to our medical practice at age 10-11, and we offer continuity of care to patients until their mid-20s. During this time, whether the patient is being seen at my office or elsewhere, it’s critical for teen and young adult patients to grow in their capacity to advocate for themselves and work towards handling their healthcare independently. In this article, I will share 5 ways that parents can empower their teens to manage their health.

1. Invite Teens to Tell Their Own Story

Our office flow is set up to empower our patients, and patients notice immediate differences when they enter our practice. Our teen and young adult patients check themselves in- we have kiosks in the waiting room for them to use. All patients are given paperwork that they fill out from their perspective. We want our patients to be able to report their symptoms and their concerns. Teen patients can complete much of their own paperwork. For example, they can complete forms for preventive care, mental health care, menstrual health, and even acute illnesses. This process helps patients learn to reflect AND report how they feel. It encourages them to give details and context to their concerns.

Our new patient paperwork starts off with this  question: “What do you think are your strengths?” Teenager’s answers help us assess their developmental stage. Furthermore, we are fostering the idea of focusing on what is going well in their lives. We ask what they wish they could change about themselves or their lives. This provides a space for patients to help guide the visit with their own concerns. Of course, we want to hear from parents too, but this helps teens be part of the conversation. 

I encourage all parents to allow their teenage children to actively participate in medical visits, giving their children effective voices. Invite them to fill out their own paperwork, and speak for themselves– the celebrations and the challenges.

2. Let Teens Talk

When I introduce myself, my goal is to help families understand what they can expect in each visit. I always let parents know I direct most of the visit towards my patients. I value parents’ insights, as they are experts on their own children, AND I want teenagers to be able to tell their own stories and guide their healthcare experience because they, too, are experts on their own lives. During visits, I encourage teens to answer questions directly. Parents are invited to witness their children as they speak for themselves during the visit. Many teens turn to their parents for answers, and this is fine as long as parents don’t dominate discussions.

Every patient has private one-on-one time with me. I let parents know that this is a safe space for young people to let me know their real concerns. Teen patients need to feel that they can ask any question, get answers and talk to me in more detail about their struggles. This time is confidential, but I remind my families that if I am ever worried about my patients’ safety or risky behaviors that could affect their safety, I am obligated to inform parents. 

Parents should ask their teens if they would feel more comfortable speaking with their doctor privately.  Many teens prefer to have certain discussions on their own, and it’s important than parents honor and trust this preference.

3. Help them Build a Team of Support

One part of my work as a physician to teenagers is to open up communication between teens and their parents. Many patients are not telling their parents the full story of what is going on in their lives. Most parents want to stay connected and keep the dialogue open. I tell teens it’s important for their parents to be able to help them, and for teens to always remember that their parents are part of their team.

If I learn about substance use, concerning sexual behavior, or other risky behavior when speaking with teen patients, I empower them to get the help they need. Often that starts with open communication and talking directly to their parents or another trusted adult to help them. I mediate these conversations between teenagers and their parents, and my ultimate goal is to keep my patients safe and healthy. 

Keeping open communication with teens lets them know as parents or guidance you care and reminds them of their parents’ unconditional support. Furthermore, they need to be able to identify other adults and people in their support system. 

4. Let them Manage their Health as Independently as Possible

Once established with our practice and empowered to manage their own health, many teens come back to the exam room on their own. These teens navigate the entire visit on their own. As I wrap up, I ask them if they would like for me to review the visit with their parents, and most feel confident and capable to keep their parents informed. Many teens drive themselves to our office, and occasionally we will call parents to get updates or clarification during the visits.

As teens age into adulthood, I encourage my patients to call the office when they need us. Young adult patients need to be able to request medication refills, make appointments, speak with our on-call nurse regarding symptoms and receive calls about lab and study results. I’m concerned when parents are still managing every aspect of college-aged patients’ healthcare. Parents usually mean well by helping them, but the effect can be to delay them from maturing into independent adults. 

Encourage your teen to schedule their own appointments, call the nurse as needed, and take the lead when it comes to making healthcare decisions. If they need help, role-playing conversations with teens can help them feel ready to navigate their own health.

5. Encourage Teens to Know their Health History

As patients enter college or leave home for work, there are many aspects of their health they should know well and feel confident in managing.

Older teen and young adult patients should know their medical history. This includes things like: conditions they are currently diagnosed with, recent hospitalizations, past surgeries, and any specialists they see regularly to manage their health. College patients should know medications they take, including the name, indication, dose and how long they have been taking it. All of this relevant information may be printed out for patients to refer to, but the overarching goal is for patients to understand their health and feel confident in managing their healthcare.

 I recommend all patients– regardless of age– know their primary care physician’s name and contact information, as well as the last visit in their office. 

Thanks for diving into this conversation with me! The ways you are supporting your teen matter, and you are helping them build important skills for navigating and caring for their health and healthcare experience. Please follow me on social media for education and guidance in Adolescent Medicine. You’ll especially love my Tuesday Talk series where I cover a wide range of topics that will support you as parents, as well as your teenagers!

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