As student ambassadors for the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, the four of us spend a lot of time talking to our fellow high school students about how to be healthy: how to get the HPV vaccine, handle stress, avoid the flu, and more.
But it’s hard for teens to be healthy if they don’t trust their health care providers. So today, instead of talking to other teens like we usually do, we want to give advice directly to medical providers.
Here are 7 pieces of advice for doctors about how to talk to teens, especially about sensitive subjects like sexual health.
1. Ask our parents to step out for part of the appointment.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we don’t always feel comfortable talking openly about sex, drinking and emotions when a parent is standing right there. We want to take care of our health, but it’s tough to advocate for ourselves if we don’t have the opportunity to talk alone with the doctor.
2. Explain confidentiality up front.
As we’ve said before, it’s hard for teens to talk openly if they’re worried that what they say will get back to their parents. If we’re under 18 years old, we want to know exactly what doctors can (and will) keep confidential, and what you’ll need a parent’s or guardian’s consent for. After the parent has left the room, explain up front (without having to be asked) what will stay between you and the young person, and what you’ll need to get a parent involved in.
3. Don’t judge.
At one point or another, every one of us student ambassadors has felt judged by a doctor. This makes us feel awful—like we should have kept everything inside instead of opening up. It also means that we probably won’t bring up that subject with doctors again. Don’t laugh at us, minimize our concerns, make rude or sarcastic comments, or make faces. Instead, treat us with the same respect you would treat adult patients. Recognize that it can be really challenging for us to talk about our personal lives, and that our questions and concerns are valid and real.
4. Ask open, direct questions.
Take the time to get to know us, instead of making assumptions about who we are. Ask us how we are, what we care about, how school is going, what we’re worried about. When it comes to more sensitive subjects, just be open, direct and nonjudgmental. For example, ask us whether we’re in a relationship, rather than whether we have a boyfriend. Ask, “Do you drink?” instead of “You don’t drink, do you?”
In addition, explain why you’re asking personal questions. It can feel invasive to have someone ask whether we’re sexually active, drink, do drugs, or feel stressed. However, if we know why we’re being asked, it can be easier to talk about. It also shows that you want us to feel comfortable.
5. Make time for our questions.
Ask us if we have questions. Reassure us that no question is too dumb, no subject is off limits, and that the office is a judgment-free zone. Remind us that what’s talked about in the doctor’s office, stays in the doctor’s office. Asking questions can be really hard, and this kind of reassurance can make the difference between whether we speak up or stay silent.
6. Explain what you’re doing and why.
When you’re doing a physical exam, ask first. Explain what you’re doing and why. Get our consent before touching us. Going to the doctor can make anyone anxious, especially if they’ve had negative experiences at the doctor’s office before, or feel uncomfortable in their body. Being shown respect like this can do a lot to help.
If you’re giving us a new diagnosis or prescribing a new medication, take the time to educate us. What does the diagnosis mean, how will the medication help, and what else can we do to stay healthy?
7. Make your office teen-friendly.
Get fun posters about birth control or safer sex! Put out a bowl of condoms! Get diagrams of the human body that are friendly and colorful! Put up safe space signs or rainbow stickers so teens know that you’re LGBTQ-friendly! There are lots of ways to make your physical office space feel welcoming and warm, rather than dry and clinical. Ask your teen patients for some ideas.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, call (212) 423-3000 to make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for confidential, nonjudgmental healthcare at no cost to you.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.