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Teaching Teenagers How To Navigate Their Health

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Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Teaching your teenagers how to navigate their health is one of the most important, and potentially challenging, life lessons you can share with them. But how do you do it?

Teenagers are known for not listening, and being distracted and overly tied to technology.

How do you get through to them about learning to take responsibility for their health despite these challenges?

How do you get them to be open about their health when being open isn’t something teenagers do?

I spoke with Tricia Laursen, executive director of 15-40 Connection, who shares some tips:

  • It starts when they’re young with the way you talk to them about health, involving them, asking them questions. Even with young children, parents can begin by asking children how long something has hurt or how long they haven’t felt well, and if it hurts the next day to tell you about it. Questions and responsibility will increase with age.
  • You’re teaching your child to work collaboratively with you, the parent, about their health. Down the line, when they’re on their own, that collaboration will transfer to their doctor.
  • When you’re in the exam room with your child at a medical appointment, let her talk to the doctor, but don’t be her voice. When I was in the room with my son, I had to bite my tongue until he answered the doctor’s question. Include your child in the conversation, don’t act like he or she isn’t in the room.
  • Tell your child to be honest with the doctor how much something really hurts. They may want to protect their ego, not appear weak, putting on a brave face. Or they may be embarrassed. Let them talk first, but chime in if you know they’re hiding something. Don’t embarrass them but emphasize that the doctor’s office is the place where complete honesty is crucial. Remind them there’s no such thing as TMI here – the doctor has heard and seen everything.
  • Stress to them to trust that they know themselves better than the doctor. The doctor may have medical knowledge, but only they know how they’re feeling. So, for example, if the doctor says your fatigue or lack of energy is depression, and you know you’re not depressed, speak up. Your doctor needs to know the truth to make an accurate diagnosis.

Q: Is there a way to take advantage of technology to help, rather than hinder, your efforts?

  • Technology helps you think more broadly about exactly what you’re feeling, which you can then report to the doctor. Seeking medical advice on “Dr. Google” via sites such as WebMD and others can help you ask better questions such as “What else could this be?” and “When should I expect to feel better.”
  • But be careful of the sources - Google isn’t a doctor. It can cause you to ignore symptoms and prevent you from going to the doctor. However, being worried enough to seek advice about a problem online is a good indication you should talk to a doctor about it.
  • Use the phone to write down symptoms while they’re occurring or you’re thinking of them, rather than relying on memory at your appointment. You can also take pictures of a rash or a mole that’s changing. Such information can help your doctor make a more accurate diagnosis.

Q: In your extensive educational outreach to high school and college students, what do you think helps get through to them?

  • Storytelling from our many peer 15-40 Ambassadors really helps. The presentations from these individuals, most of whom are cancer survivors, about their individual experiences with doctors and the health care system help normalize what they learned and what doctors really expect.
  • We stress the reward for being empowered. If your problem turns out to be nothing, it’s cause for celebration. Or, if it is something, whether it’s mono or cancer, by detecting symptoms and getting treatment earlier, it’s still reason to celebrate because you’ve helped yourself get back to health sooner, or possibly even saved your own life.

Q: What are the most important things you can teach your kids about taking care of their health that don’t sound like “health class?”

  • In health education class, you’re being talked at, it’s not a collaborative experience. The more ownership of information or a situation you have, the more you embrace it. That’s human nature, and it’s especially true for teachers seeking avenues for independence.
  • Teach them to tune in to what’s normal for them, so when something changes they can monitor what’s going on. You’re not asking them to be hypervigilant or to become hypochondriacs, you’re letting them exercise control. You’re putting them in the driver’s seat to be active participants and to become good decision makers for their own health. With this education, even if something happens, your child will know what to do; it’ll be second nature.
  • Tell your children to imagine themselves as the quarterback of their own health care. Their voice matters. They can shape their own health outcome, maybe even save their own life, just by speaking up. And that’s a powerful thing.
  • You’re not always going to be there to intervene, and once they turn 18, HIPAA privacy rules take over. They have to stick up for themselves. If they don’t take action, no one will.
  • It’s all about being an active participant. If you just turn information over to someone you don’t really learn the lessons. These are valuable life lessons – if you learn to do this for health care, you can use it anywhere.

At 15-40 Connection, you teach 3 Steps Detect. Tell us about it.

  • Remember what great feels like. Tune into your energy level, sleep patterns, weight, skin and bathroom habits. Get to know what’s normal for you.
  • Use the two-week rule. If any subtle changes in your health last longer than two weeks, it’s time to call a doctor. The two-week rule is the one young people intuitively tune into, and tend to hold on to. It’s concrete. It’s not a long list of cancer symptoms you have to memorize. Even pretty young kids can learn the two-week rule.
  • Share with a doctor. You know your body best. Share information about any health changes with your doctors. It may be difficult, even embarrassing, but it could be lifesaving. If symptoms persist, follow up, or, if you’re not getting anywhere with that doctor, see another one. We make cancer less scary, because now they know what to look for, they can act, and take things one step at a time, instead of ducking and running.

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