Teens: time to take more responsibility for your health

Claire McCarthy, MD

There are milestones of independence that all teens look forward to, like getting a driver’s license, having a job or going to college.

Being responsible for your own health care isn’t so much on that list.

But the reality is that once you turn 18, you become legally responsible.  Literally. Once you are 18, your parents can’t make health decisions for you, or even get information from your doctor, without your consent. Now, you might be willing to give that consent (especially if it means less work for you!), but the sooner you learn to take charge and responsibility, the better—because before you know it, you really will have to do it by yourself.

There are a few steps you can take to get yourself started. You can and should start these steps by the time you start high school, at the latest.

Be involved in the conversation. When you go to the doctor, don’t just sit there while your parents do the talking. Chances are you know more than your parents do about what you have been feeling or thinking.  So be part of the conversation. Answer the questions yourself!

Get your questions answered. Sometimes parents understand things that kids don’t, because they’ve done the health care thing for longer. And sometimes—actually, lots of times—parents have different questions for the doctor than their kids do. But your questions are just as important, if not more so. Don’t be afraid to ask them.

Make sure you fully understand. We doctors have a way of talking in doctorspeak—and, like I said, sometimes parents know a few more terms and things than their kids. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand everything! Make sure you really understand what the doctors and other medical staff say, and that you understand everything about any tests or treatments they suggest. It may turn out that your parents didn’t understand either!

Say what’s important to you.  Your parents might not realize how important something is to you. Maybe it’s playing your sport or a particular game—or being able to go on a trip or to a concert or special party. Maybe it’s a side effect of a medication that you really don’t like, something about a treatment that really does or doesn’t work for you, or a risk you do or don’t want to take. Let your parents and the doctor know. Be part of the decision-making.

Be responsible for your health. Sooner or later it’s going to be all your responsibility, so start practicing. If you have a health condition, learn about it. Find out what you can do to get and keep yourself healthy—and do it. Don’t depend on your parents to remind you to take your medications. Depending on your age and on what’s going on, it could be a good idea to meet alone with your doctor, at least for part of the visit. If you start doing this bit by bit, it won’t feel strange when you have to do it all alone.

The bottom line: It’s your body and your life.  Start now: Speak up, be part of the team, learn what you need to know and do. It might not be as fun as getting your driver’s license, but you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s a video from our Teen Advisory Committee to show you how it’s done:

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