Finding the Right Doctor for Your Teen
Teenagers need a different kind of medical care than children do -- and their own relationship with the doctor.
If your child is on the cusp of puberty, gone are the days when she was
placated by a lollipop after a doctor’s visit. Now you likely have to badger or
bribe her to see the doctor or outright drag her to medical appointments. Even
more challenging for parents is making sure the doctor is a good match for
their growing kid’s needs, medically and emotionally.
When Palo Alto, Calif., mom Sally King (not her real name) started thinking
about getting her two daughters, 16 and 18, vaccinated against human
papillomavirus (HPV) infection (a major cause of cervical cancer), she realized
it was time to change doctors. “I had been taking them to a male pediatrician.
I didn’t feel it was comfortable for them.”
So she made an appointment with Sophia Yen, MD, MPH, a clinical instructor
of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto and an
adolescent medicine specialist. Yen made the teens feel at ease, answering
their questions as their mother sat in the waiting room.
Teen Medical Care
After a childhood of doctors’ visits aimed at preventing disease and
tracking developmental milestones, teens and preteens need a different level of
medical care. “We move from a prevention model to a sick model,” says Warren
Siegel, MD, chair of the department of pediatrics and director of adolescent
medicine at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn. Most teens, he says, don’t
consult doctors regularly unless they are sick or need physicals for sports
participation or jobs.
But the “well visit” model should continue, Siegel and other experts say.
“All adolescents should see their health care provider at least once a year,”
Siegel says. During those visits, your teen or preteen’s doctor not only should
evaluate your child’s physical and mental health and any need for immunizations
but also should ask about school performance and discuss puberty, sexual
activity, contraception, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol.
When Teens Should See Doctors Alone
Once your child hits puberty, the doctor may close the door in your face --
literally. “The 12-year visit is really a time when adolescents should be seen
alone,” Siegel says -- even earlier if they have already entered
Granted, the transition to the solo visit is not always easy for parents,
Yen says. “What we talk about,” she tells parents about her closed-door
conversations, “is confidential unless they are hurting themselves, someone is
hurting them, or they are hurting someone. Then I will definitely tell
Here’s the good news: Learning to navigate the doctor’s office as a teen is
good practice, Yen advises parents. “They will end up in the emergency room
without you [someday],” she says. “They need to know their medical history and
how to interact with a physician.” Having time alone with the doctor also makes
it easier for your child to broach delicate questions about new hair growth,
odd smells, periods, and sex.
Enlisting a doctor who really understands teens can ease the process of
turning over the medical reins. Was it difficult for Sally King to cut the cord
and give her daughters the privacy they needed? “No,” she says. “Dr. Yen made
it easy for them to take responsibility.”
After they left the doctor’s office, the trio celebrated with a ritual that
appeals to all ages: ice cream.