The first few years of your child's life almost revolve around the pediatrician's office. There are so many regularly scheduled visits for height-and-weight measurements, tips about feeding, discussion of milestones met and just general bragging about your baby's progress. As long as your child isn't sick, visiting the pediatrician is actually kind of fun for you as a mom — so it kind of takes you by surprise when suddenly, you feel that you are on the hot seat and your child is being interrogated.
"I think it happened when my daughter turned 11," remembers Tracy, a mother of three. "During her well-check, the doctor started directing questions to her instead of me. Questions about whether we had guns in the house, if anyone smokes — that kind of thing."
Even when your home life is squeaky-clean, the sudden change in questioning might feel confrontational. Tricia, a mother of two teens, was speechless at her daughter's recent sports physical.
"The doctor asked me — in front of my daughter — what medications my husband takes. Is nothing private anymore? What if there were something that we haven't told the kids about? I get that he was probably looking for family history information, but we had already gone through that list of conditions," she says. "I was irritated."
These types of questions aren't intended to irritate or upset parents. Doctors are looking out for their young patients' best interests. So don't be put off if the pediatrician asks seemingly invasive questions of you or asks to speak to your child alone.
"There are many reasons why pediatricians and adolescents should spend part of the visit speaking without a parent or guardian present, and it is recommended that this occur at least once annually," says Dr. Brian Eichner, a general pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Duke University Department of Pediatrics. "Most families recognize that this is important, but often they have some reservations. Many families (understandably) fear that this will be when pediatricians condone risky behaviors that the parents have worked so hard to try to prevent. Other parents (rightfully so) feel that since they know their child best, they would know everything about what their child is doing or thinking about doing," he adds.
For parents who are used to being the main keeper of their child's medical information, this sudden change can be disconcerting. Moms still want to feel that they are the primary source of information where their children are concerned.
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that parents and pediatricians make available time for tweens and teens to discuss private health care issues with their pediatrician. As they get older, your children will need to be sufficiently aware of their own health care to be able to manage it themselves — and answering some of these relatively simple questions is a good start.
"We, as pediatricians, fully acknowledge that parents know their children best, and the last thing we want to do is undermine that relationship," says Dr. Eichner.
As your child gets older — and heads into the teen years — being able to have a frank discussion with someone who isn't a parent becomes more and more important.
"By way of example, here are some situations that I have been able to discuss with my teen patients recently that they had not disclosed while their parents were in the room: pregnancy, drug use, depression, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, unsafe home situations and school problems. So, while none of these things are pleasant to talk about, they can all be more adequately dealt with if a responsible adult is aware," Dr. Eichner shares.
For anyone who deals with children and adolescents on a regular basis, there is always a conscious effort to watch for red flags. While one 11-year-old may seem to have the perfectly regular existence of a young child, there may be indications in another child of the same age that things aren't as they seem. Anyone who comes into contact with your child in a professional capacity — from a school employee to the nurse at the pediatrician's office — is under obligation to report anything that seems suspicious.
As a parent, it's hard to start letting other adults have input into your child's decisions.
"We are pretty open with our son about most things, so thinking that he needed to talk to his doctor alone didn't sit well with me," says Cathy, a mother of two. "But I finally realized that because we are open, it's a good thing for him to seek outside opinions from trusted adults."
For many parents, this is a difficult time of transition. But in order to raise competent, thinking young adults, you need to begin to give them a small amount of control over their own health and well-being.
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