This blog was informed by a conversation with Dr. Arash Anoshiravani. Dr. Anoshiravani is a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Stanford School of Medicine and the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.
Your teen doesn’t seem like herself lately. She is angry because the pandemic ruined her freshman year of high school. She is worried about things she’s been seeing on the news lately. She misses spending time with her friends and family. How can you help your daughter get the support she needs to feel better?
As a parent, you want to do everything in your power to help her feel better, but you may not know where to start, how to identify what’s wrong, or she may not be willing to share her feelings with you right away. This type of situation is very common, and most parents face these challenges at some point. Fortunately, doctors and nurses who work with children are highly skilled at communicating with young people. There are many ways that parents can partner with their pediatrician to help guide their child to the right support.
Opening up to a parent can be hard for children of all ages
The relationship between a child and a parent is very different from other child-adult relationships. For parents and children, there is often an array of expectations and emotions on both sides. Parents feel love, pride, concern, and fear for their children. Perhaps due to these emotions, children may feel uncomfortable about sharing their feelings or worried about their parents being disappointed or angry.
It may be harder for some children to talk about their feelings to their parents than to speak to someone they’ve just met, like a doctor. While the new relationship is trusting and driven by care, it isn’t deeply emotional.
As a parent, knowing your child has a trusted adult to open up to, even if it’s not a member of your family, can be very reassuring, and it can help take the pressure off of parents to solve every problem. There are several ways you can partner with your pediatrician to help your child express their feelings in a safe, clinical environment.
Pre-Appointment: Sharing your concerns with your child’s doctor
If your child isn’t sharing their feelings with you, and you would like them to speak with their doctor, you can call ahead of the appointment and let the doctor’s office know that you are noticing behaviors you’d like the doctor to ask about.
If your child is a bit older, you may ask to speak to the doctor privately for a few minutes before the appointment (a good opportunity is while your child has their vitals taken). During the private conversation, you can share your concerns and ask your doctor to discuss how to handle these emotions with your child. You can also use this pre-appointment time with your child’s doctor to discuss ground rules for patient confidentiality and communications.
During the appointment: Building a trusting child-adult relationship
Your child’s doctor may ask them about how they are doing, and they may choose not to share their feelings. If it’s not an emergency, the doctor may not push for answers. Often, pushing children makes them uncomfortable, and they may lose interest in expressing their feelings in the future. Instead, the doctor will respect the young person’s autonomy and build a foundation for trust. They will open the door for future conversations and share that they are always welcome to reach out if they feel differently or new feelings start to bother them.
For older children (often 13 years or older), your doctor may suggest that you are not present during the conversation so that the young person can speak freely and provide an unfiltered answer. Although some parents may feel worried about their child speaking to the doctor without them, this appointment can be a good opportunity for the young person to have confidential time and practice talking to their doctor about symptoms and feelings. Many parents appreciate this opportunity and see its value, even if they are worried about the conversation.
If you are not in the room during the visit, it’s natural, as a parent, to want to know what came up in the conversation. Although the exact age differs by state, most young people are protected by confidentiality laws, and your doctor cannot share information with you. These laws are in place so that young people have the opportunity to talk with professionals in their lives about things they may not be comfortable talking to their parents about.
After the appointment: Understanding it takes time
Partnering with a doctor is a great first step for supporting behavioral health. When children experience depression, substance abuse, or act out for an underlying reason, it’s reasonable to want your child to feel better as quickly as possible. There is rarely a quick fix for this type of situation. It will take time and reflection to make a difference in how someone feels about themselves or the world.
If your child is emotionally struggling, please reach out to your child’s doctor. If Hazel is available in your schools, our doctors may be able to guide your family to the right resources.
Be sure to read the next blog in our behavioral health series: Five ways to be a supportive listener for your child.