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Monday, April 7, 2014

Developing healthcare responsibility in your children

I am writing this fully knowing I am at risk of upsetting some parents. But this is the time of year we see more school aged kids for their annual physicals, so it is the time of year I think about how parents could help their kids grow into independent adults or hinder that growth by trying to be a good parent.

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I read an article recently (The Overprotected Kid) that really hit home with me about how parents try so hard to keep their kids safe that we sometimes prevent them from learning about real life. Although the article is based on allowing kids to roam and play with things that haven't been engineered to keep them safe, it did touch on the fact that parents hang around to answer for kids and speak up for them.

I find that parents often try to help their children during visits to my office by answering questions about their health, sometimes even what they are feeling. I'm sure they want to be sure I know their (parent) perspective. Maybe they are just trying to speed up the visit so they can leave and do the other things on their to do list. But it usually ends up taking longer, because I then spend more time trying to talk to the child.

When a question is directed at the child, let the child answer. If I need parental clarification, I'll ask for it. Obviously a pre-schooler needs more help than a high schooler, but if the teen has never had the opportunity to answer for himself, he might not have the skills and confidence to do it.

Sometimes a parent will start asking their child questions or tell them to tell me about .... I'm sure they are thinking that it is helping me, but it doesn't. (I'm not talking about the parent reminding the child to tell me something they previously discussed, I'm talking about the parent who in response to something I've asked tries to draw the child into conversation-- that's my job.) I have a set amount of time to assess a child's physical exam as well as other factors, and I have a process of evaluating all the points I must consider.

When I ask a child a question, I'm not only looking for the answer they are giving, but I'm also gaining valuable information about the child. Can they speak clearly? Do they understand a question that is age appropriate? Do they make eye contact? Are they developmentally mature for their age? Do they understand how their habits effect their health?

So often well intentioned parents pipe up and answer questions directed at the child. It doesn't matter if I'm looking directly at the child, the parent answers. Even if the child starts to answer. I will often redirect to the child for clarification and the parent still answers. Some of the kids roll their eyes. Others take it in stride without much of an expression at all, as if they're used to their parent taking care of everything. Some simply turn back to their hand held game and play, ignoring the grown ups in the room. Ugh! How does that help me get to know the kid?

Sometimes I wonder how the parent makes it through the day when the child is at school since they can't be there to speak up for the child all day there. It can be that bad.

I really worry about the older school aged kids, especially those in high school, who have parents answer for them. How will they be able to assume their healthcare responsibilties once they turn 18? If they don't know about their past medical history, allergies, and family medical history how can they eventually establish healthcare with a new physician without a parent? If they can't give a clear and concise summary of what their symptoms are for an illness, what will they do when you're not there?

And yes, I see parents piping up for their high schoolers.

I guess it's a learned behavior for all. Parents get used to answering the questions for pre-verbal kids, and they keep doing it.

Please stop.

Let kids in elementary school be prepared to order off the menu when the waitress comes to the table -- after discussing their choice before she gets there if they need help deciding on a healthy item. Have older elementary kids speak up at the store to ask for help when they need a dressing room or if they need a price check. Let them talk to their teachers first if they question a grade or need help learning a concept. Let them give their own health summaries at the doctor's office. You can be there for support along the way, but offer less and less as they get older and more experienced.

If your child has true inabilities to do these things there might be an underlying problem, such as anxiety or developmental delay. Those should be addressed. But by far and away most school aged kids can do these things. Let them.

They need to do these things to be able to one day live independently. Trust me, they will appreciate it some day! Too many college kids call home for parents to "fix" things that the young adult should be able to handle. But they can't jump into the deep end of the pool without learning to swim along the way.