It’s not always easy to connect with teens as they struggle for independence, but it is essential to keep talking even if they don’t appear to be listening. Good communication between teens, parents, and health professionals is crucial, as it positively influences every aspect of a teen’s health.
Dr. Charles Parmele of Annapolis Pediatrics emphasizes the importance of communication, saying that “…the main thing that parents should know when dealing with teens is that study after study shows that teens want their parents to talk to them about health issues like drugs and alcohol even if they don’t look like it. The best thing parents can do is have lots of conversations about these issues. Even if the teen is sitting there staring at their shoes, they really are listening.”
A Parent’s First Resource: the Pediatrician
Pediatricians are there from a child’s first check-up and round of vaccines until they graduate high school, and often, even beyond that. Dr. Parmele explains that healthy young adults don’t need to rush to find a general physician; some might just see a college’s student health center when they have colds, and can return to the pediatrician when they’re home. Teens with more serious health conditions might consider making the transition earlier.
Teens should be able to trust their pediatrician, and recognize that she can do more than give them yet another strep test. Dr. Parmele notes that pediatricians can help determine whether a teen has a serious medical concern like depression or an eating disorder, and also refer him to the additional medical support he needs to recover. Sharon Peterson, LSCW-C, the founding director of Eating Disorders Network of Maryland, agrees with Dr. Parmele, explaining that the pediatrician can “make sure a patient is physically O.K.”
Teens and Eating Disorders
“Food is an easy thing to abuse,” Peterson notes. Eating disorders are not really about the food, however; they are about the other issues going on in a teen’s life, such as teasing or depression. She warns parents that if a teen has struggled with an eating disorder for more than a couple of months that it can take several years to fully recover. For a recovery to begin, however, the problem must be recognized. Many parents who go to Peterson with their concerns say that they just “have a bad feeling,” but are able to pinpoint more specific signs when asked about their teen’s behavior. “What [teens with eating disorders] see is skewed from what the rest of the world sees,” Peterson explains. If a teen thinks that she looks fat when she clearly is not, that should not be ignored. If this poor body image seems to be carried over into eating habits, then parents should help their teen seek help sooner rather than later. It will not be easy, Peterson warns. ”If a child has an eating disorder, they don’t want anyone messing with their life.” However painful it is, however, the parents need to persevere. “It’s proven that parent involvement is the number one way to go when it comes to eating disorders. You can’t just work with the kids, you have to work with the parents.” With this in mind, Peterson tries to get the entire family in one room so everyone knows how to support the teen’s recovery.
Peterson emphasizes, “Recovery is possible. There is hope.”
It can be difficult for a parent to recognize depression in a teen; all too often, it is written off as typical teenage moodiness. However, if a parent realizes that their teen may be suffering from depression, it is important to get him help. “The key thing for parents to know is that this is a treatable medical illness,” says Dr. Karen Swartz, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Adolescent Depression Awareness Program. It is essential to be educated as well. “The first thing you want to do is make sure you have quality information about depression.” She urges parents to talk to a primary care physician about their teen’s stress level, mood, and other factors to determine if teen is depressed. When the time comes to decide on a course of treatment, Dr. Swartz says that the best treatment is a combination of medicine and psychotherapy.
While it is difficult to deal with depression, Dr. Swartz’s advice on getting a teen the help they need is simple: “The important thing you want to convey to the teen is that you think that you can help.”
Keeping Teen Girls Healthy
Parents should educate their teens about sexual health, but at this time, teen girls need a few visits to medical professionals as well as open conversations at home. Dr. Jackie Nichols of Women Ob/Gyn of Annapolis says, “The most important thing is the HPV vaccine…The vaccine can prevent some of the strains that cause warts and some of the strains that cause [cervical] cancer. And it’s important to get it before starting intercourse because that’s when it will be most effective.”
As important as it is to develop a relationship with their parents, a teen girl also needs to trust her gynecologist. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that teens have their first appointment between 13 and 15. Dr. Nichols says that she uses these early appointments to build a good relationship with her patients, and advises parents to “let them know that the gynecologist is there for any reproductive concerns, even those that they wouldn’t go to a parent with.”
Ultimately, as Dr. Nichols points out, there are issues that teens won’t approach their parents with, but when parents can communicate that they and a range of health professionals are available to support them, their teens will be the healthier for it.
by Chandlee Taylor