Adulting: Encourage your kids to be their own health advocates

When we send kids off to college, or they leave home to experience life on their own, we expect them to attend class and get to work on time. We hope all that we taught them takes hold. For many, it’s the first time they have to balance a budget, go grocery shopping, do laundry, maintain a car, and so much more.

Before the big send-off, parents discuss a lot of do’s and don’ts. But all too often, we forget to teach them to take the lead in protecting their own health.

University Health System’s Teen Health Clinic, created in partnership with UT Health San Antonio, provides medical and educational services to those who are 10 to 25 years old. According to Medical Director, Dr. Kristen Plastino, it’s important for young adults to learn how to ask their own questions about their health.

“We encourage our patients to open up and talk about sensitive, personal health issues that need to be addressed,” Dr. Plastino said. “I routinely ask parents or guardians to step out of the room so I can understand the real concerns of my patients.”

Experts recommend starting health discussions with youth in junior high or earlier. It’s helpful for parents to model how to interact with a doctor. Show teenagers how to focus on key points during a doctor visit, such as:

  • Making a list of questions ahead of time so you don’t forget anything
  • Writing down what the doctor says and repeating it to confirm that you understand
  • Paying attention to details of test results, required therapy, and necessary medications
  • Asking for instructions on how to access digital medical records

Part of adulthood is talking about uncomfortable topics and taking action. Teenagers are best served by doctors who aren’t afraid to tackle conversations about sexually transmitted diseases, binge drinking, unsafe driving, anxiety and depression, bad relationships, or anything else that may be troubling the young adult.

Research published by the National Institutes of Health suggests that improving adolescent and young adult health is critical because the behaviors you start as a teenager build a foundation for future healthy or unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Surprisingly, almost 20% of adolescents have experienced some type of behavioral or mental health disorder. Young adults experience this at a greater level, particularly in the areas of substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections and mental health problems.

One way to promote good health is by being organized and having a plan for the unexpected. Dr. Plastino recommends young adults follow these healthy guidelines:

  • Schedule medical check-ups once a year and dental check-ups twice a year
  • Exercise, eat healthily and get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night
  • Know your normal, physically and mentally
  • Before a crisis, establish a list of medical contacts
  • Have a trusted adult to go to for advice and support
  • Be aware of your own risky behaviors
  • Seek counseling services when needed

The percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has risen significantly over the past decade, according to research recently published by the American Psychological Association.

The research suggests that a higher percentage of adolescents and young adults may be experiencing mood disorders partially due to the increased use of electronic communications and digital media. Young adults are entering adulthood in a different technological culture compared to their parents.

You can help your adolescent grow into a healthier adult by encouraging them to value self-care and engaging in more face-to-face communication.

“Foster conversations, treatments, and preventive care that encourages healthy living for a lifetime,” Dr. Plastino said. “If you empower good decision making in your teenager, you’ll likely see good decision making as they become older.”

Your health, at any age, is worth protecting.

Dr. Kristen A. Plastino is Medical Director of the Teen Health Clinic. She also is a professor and Vice Chair of Clinical Operations for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Health San Antonio.