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Talking to Your Doctor

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Life gets way more complex when you're a teen. On top of all of the emotional and physical changes you go through, there are more choices and decisions to make and more stresses from school, sports, jobs, family, and even friends.

So who can you talk to about your physical and emotional concerns? Sometimes friends or parents can be helpful, but you can always talk to your doctor too.

Why Do I Need to Talk With My Doctor?

When you were a little kid, your parents took care of things like scheduling your doctors' appointments, getting your prescriptions, and making sure you took your medicine. If you had a pain or a worry, your parents were the ones to take care of it. But now that you're getting older, you may want — or be expected — to take on more responsibility for your health. It's all part of becoming an adult and taking charge.

As you get older, the issues you face can get more complicated and personal. Health issues that might have been simpler before now can include concerns about things such as sexual development, emotions, or weight problems. It's important to find someone to talk to who is both knowledgeable and someone you can trust.

Many teens are comfortable talking with their parents about almost any topic, at any time. But let's face it — not everyone is. Some teens — even though they have a fairly open relationship with their parents — just aren't comfortable talking about certain topics with their mother or father. What are they supposed to do?

Of course, they can always ask a friend — or go to the Internet. Sometimes, those places can be a good start. But friends might not really know the answers you're looking for — and not every website is accurate or up to date.

That's where your doctor or nurse can help out.

Doctors and nurses are trained to help you with your health and emotional concerns. You can talk with them, they can ask you questions, and they can check out what worries you. That's their job.

Even if you feel embarrassed at first about raising personal subjects (like physical development or sexual health), it's helpful to know that doctors deal with those concerns — and all sorts of things — every day. And sometimes ignoring the risks of not talking to your doctor can outweigh the few moments of discomfort you may feel in raising sensitive health concerns.

Special Concerns for Teens

Maybe you're developing later or earlier than your friends and want to know what's going on. There might be times you feel more depressed or angry than you used to. New sexual feelings and behaviors can be confusing, too. Topics you never had to think about before, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy, may suddenly be on your radar.

How Do I Discuss Embarrassing Things?

It's perfectly normal to feel nervous when talking with your doctor about things like sex, drugs, eating problems, weight concerns, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even body odor. You should be able to talk to your doctor about everything, but we all know that's easier said than done. Being examined and questioned about your body can also be intimidating, especially when the doctor needs to examine you in places you have always considered private, such as your genitals or breasts.

But there are things you can bear in mind to make it easier:

  • Your doctor's seen it before. Most experienced doctors have cared for hundreds or even thousands of patients, so chances are they've heard, seen, and even smelled just about everything before. No matter how troubling something might be to you, it probably won't surprise your doctor.
  • Your doctor is there to help, not judge or punish. If you've been going to the same doctor all your life, you may wonder if the doctor will be disappointed in you when you want to talk about sex or personal things that may be bothering you. That's what doctors do all the time, though.
    • Your doctor is interested in keeping you healthy, not judging you for something you have or haven't done. For this reason, a person who is concerned about a sensitive topic, such as having an STD, shouldn't avoid going to the doctor because he or she is ashamed or worried about what the doctor might think. Not having things like STDs checked might only make a condition worse and may even result in a permanent health problem, such as infertility. A doctor's role is to listen respectfully, examine, educate, and treat people, not criticize them. If you think your doctor is judging or preaching to you, talk to your parents about finding someone with whom you're more comfortable.
  • It's your job to talk openly about your symptoms and concerns. A doctor can't help you unless you tell the whole story. Even if you're uncomfortable, being open and honest will only benefit you. Most doctors realize that people can feel uncomfortable about raising sensitive issues, and they try to be good listeners.
    • If you feel you can't put your concerns into words, try showing up for your appointment with a written list to give to the doctor. It can include your problems, symptoms, questions, and concerns. This approach can jump-start the communication process and help put you at ease. Many people find that once they've brought the subject up and gotten past those first nervous moments, they feel a lot more comfortable talking openly.

Do My Parents Have to Be Involved?

Lots of teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about all of their medical issues, but others prefer to keep certain aspects of their health private. Because parents usually need to stay involved in certain aspects of their child's medical care until that person reaches 18, it can help to find a "middle ground" that allows you to meet your privacy concerns and your parents' needs.

Here are some ideas on approaching your parents about taking charge of your medical care:

  • Express your interest in taking an active role in your medical care. Start by talking with your parents about things you'd like to handle by yourself, like making appointments, calling your doctor with questions, and seeing the doctor alone for part of the time. Most doctors will allow a teen to go to an appointment alone if a parent calls and gives permission for treatment.
  • Balance your needs with your parents' needs. Parents are not only interested in ensuring you get the best medical care available, they may need to stay involved in your health care for other reasons, like insurance. Most states require that doctors have a parent's permission before providing some types of medical tests and treatment (there are some things that you should be able to keep confidential from your folks if you want to, though — more on that later).
    • Some doctors suggest that both you and a parent meet with the doctor together for the first part of the appointment. Parents can often help by providing information on your (and your family's) medical history. At that point, if you prefer, the doctor can ask your parent to leave so you can talk and be examined in private. If you have private questions or concerns that you want to discuss with your doctor without your parent being in the room, this is a good time to bring these things up.

      Sometimes you need to talk to a doctor ahead of time, not just after a problem has developed. For example, if you're considering becoming sexually active, going on a special diet, or treating yourself with medication, you need to talk openly and honestly with medical experts you trust.
  • Ask a parent to help you find a new doctor if you need one. It's your right to have a doctor who makes you feel comfortable and treats you with respect. Of course the doctor you've had since you were a little kid knows your medical history better than anyone, but if you're not comfortable talking with him or her for any reason, what do you do? Ask your parents about finding another doctor both you and they can trust. Sometimes it helps to tell your parents you'd like to find a doctor who has lots of experience treating teens.
    • Ideally it's best to involve your parents in your health care because their advice and input can help you make the decision that's best for you. Plus, if you're still in your early teens, parents may feel more inclined to oversee your medical care than they might if you were older. But many people find it difficult to talk with their parents about certain medical or emotional concerns, even if they don't mind talking about most of their medical care. That's where confidentiality comes in.

Can I Keep My Visit Private?

It's a good idea to talk to your parents first about these types of issues, and many people do. Your health is the most important thing. If talking to a parent or other responsible adult in your family isn't possible, you still need to get good care for yourself. That's where confidentiality comes in.

Confidential care means that your medical treatment stays between you and your doctor — you don't have to get a parent's permission. Confidentiality helps to ensure honesty and openness between a patient and a doctor. Most states ensure that teens can get confidential care for some sensitive medical matters, such as sexual health education and treatment, mental health issues like suicide and depression, and drug abuse. Sexual health education and treatment includes counseling, birth control, pregnancy care, and examinations and treatment for STDs.

So where can you get these services? Many family doctors will agree to treat their teen patients confidentially, so you may be able to approach you own family doctor and ask if he or she will do so. If you're not sure whether your treatment will be confidential, ask beforehand: Some doctors will treat their teen patients confidentially only when they have a parent's approval to do so. Most doctors agree to keep things confidential unless they feel their patient is either in danger or is a danger to others — in these cases, the doctor is obligated to inform the teen's parents.

Some schools offer health clinics to students during school hours. A teen also can visit a health clinic like Planned Parenthood or a gynecologist (a doctor who specializes in reproductive health) at a public health clinic to receive confidential advice and treatment on matters involving sexual health. If you don't want your parents to know and can't use their insurance, these clinics usually offer cheaper services or make it easy for teens to pay. Most school clinics and public health clinics that treat teens are very careful to maintain confidentiality.

Many parents are happy to have their teens see a doctor if they need to. Discuss with your parents the idea that you can see a doctor privately when you need to. Your doctor's office may need to call you with confidential test results. Let the doctor know the best way to reach you confidentially, such as a personal cell phone if you have one. Because the doctor's bill will need to be paid, talk with your parents and the doctor about how that can happen and still keep the visit confidential.

The more you know your body, the more you can be in control of your own health. Finding a doctor you can respect and who respects you, someone you can be open with, puts you on a great path to taking charge of your health for the rest of your life.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013

License

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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