A pediatricians group releases new guidelines for doctors on such discussions, but not everyone agrees this is the right approach.
Sarah Patterson was sexually assaulted as a sophomore in high school.
But she never really received the treatment she needed.
“My doctor didn’t know how to talk to a scared teen,” she explained.
Patterson isn’t the only young girl to have faced a similar experience.
Teens and young adults over the age of 12 experience the highest rate of sexual assault, according to a report published in the March 2017 issue of Pediatrics.
Up to now, teen girls and women haven’t always received the care they’ve needed, or even been properly identified as victims of assault.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wants to change that.
New guidelines recently released by the AAP reflect a growing effort to identify and help teens like Patterson as early as possible. Those guidelines include encouraging physicians to:
- Routinely ask adolescents about any history of sexual violence, dating violence, and sexual assaults.
- Screen for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Offer emergency contraception to female adolescents who disclose sexual assault if reported within 120 hours of the assault.
- Be prepared to offer emotional support and referrals for additional counseling.
The goal is to help teens open up to their physicians and to ensure they get the support they need if an assault has taken place.
Read more: What should doctors say to teenage girls about pregnancy? »
However, not everyone is on board with the changes.
Some parents don’t feel comfortable with doctors talking to their teens about these subjects, and some past victims of abuse feel as though these new guidelines wouldn’t help anyway.
“I know I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d been asked as a teen.” Chris B. of California told Healthline. “My abuser always threatened to kill my mother if I told. So I never did.”
Andrea Duncan of Missouri agreed.
“I don’t think most teens would talk. I know I never would have talked in front of a parent,” she told Healthline.
If a teen hasn’t already opened up to a parent, what are the chances they will open up to a doctor when their parent is present?
As part of these new guidelines, should doctors be requesting a few minutes alone with teen patients to ask these potentially uncomfortable questions?
Robyn Boring, the mother of daughters, was adamant in her response.
“Given the stories I know of pediatricians and doctors who have been complicit in child abuse and trafficking of pictures and persons, I would absolutely not allow a doctor to be alone with my daughters or son questioning them,” Boring told Healthline.
So what is the answer?
How can doctors help their patients to open up, and how can they better provide the support those patients might need?
Jody Jordan, a family advocate in Texas, told Healthline she’s in favor of these new guidelines, believing they are a step in the right direction.
“In my profession,” she explained, “we are encouraged [and required] to watch for signs of abuse. Stats vary, but most studies say that at least 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be sexually abused in childhood. And screening for that, in my opinion, is a good thing. These questions should be getting asked. And I would hope parents would look at this as another level of protection for the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Heather Pickens, a mother in Arizona, agrees.
She told Healthline the story of a friend who was sexually abused as a young teen. That friend spoke to a D.A.R.E. officer in their middle school, which was what started the process of getting her the help she needed.
“In her case,” Pickens said, “she finally met an authority figure that she could trust and felt comfortable telling the truth to. So for me, I feel like more pediatricians and family doctors performing these screenings might help to make more teens feel comfortable opening up. It’s just one more potential authority figure who could make that connection.”