I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at the age of 11 and spent the rest of my childhood visiting doctors. When I moved from New Orleans to New York, my mom wanted to join me to meet my new specialist.
Even though I was 22 at the time, I knew she wanted to come because she needed the comfort of knowing who would care for me. While my request to speak surprised my mom somewhat, she agreed.
Now, I always ask my 9- and 7-year-old children the same question before we visit the doctor: “Do you want to speak or would you like me to speak for you?”
The answer is the same every time: “I want to speak.”
I believe empowering my children to speak for themselves is important. While I add details if needed, my children are confident in speaking about their bodies and expressing any concerns to their doctor. But other parents and doctors often seem surprised that my kids steer the talking. Is my choice the right one?
A pediatrician does more than prescribe medicine, they’re also available to serve as valuable emotional and mental support.
Should children speak for themselves?
According to Kristen Woodard, a pediatrician with Northeast Medical Group in Rye Brook, New York, the answer is yes.
When children learn to speak to their doctor, they become comfortable sharing their thoughts and also take ownership of their health and body — it’s an important part of child development.
“When they are part of the conversation and decision making, then they are more likely to take their pediatrician’s advice and implement it,” she explains. “But when kids feel like we are talking over them and about them instead of to them, they are much less likely to take to heart what you say and make the changes that you recommend.”
This practice helps children build trust with their doctor, allowing the relationship to grow as they get older. A pediatrician also does more than prescribe medicine, they’re also available to serve as valuable emotional and mental support.
Whether there’s a medical issue, or your child is the victim of bullying, having another trusted adult who listens and cares is a valuable resource for both the child and the parent.
Plus, your child knows their body best. Can you, as the parent, correctly state the exact location of their stomach pain? Do you know how it feels? Will sitting a certain way make it feel different or better? Is there a certain time of day where it’s worse or goes away completely?
Often, the doctor will ask the child these questions directly, but if the parent jumps in to answer, important descriptions may be left out. This can result in an incorrect diagnosis.
By speaking directly with your child, the pediatrician may receive different answers that can help determine an underlying mental health issue.
Stop hijacking: Here’s how to help
For parents who insist their child simply doesn’t know the answers, you can still help monitor their health without taking away their voice.
“You should always encourage their independence,” Woodard recommends. “But, you know your child best, so help them when needed. If your child is struggling to say what is important, especially during a sick visit, it’s fine to step in. Or, if the child is really shy, try preparing them the night before. Let them think about any questions they may want to ask, and remind them of anything going on in their lives. If they are still uncomfortable, it’s okay to ask them if they’d prefer you do the talking.”
My children are definitely not shy, and I always let them speak. But, if they provide the wrong information, such as how long they’ve been sick, or leave out important information, like a symptom, I step in.
One study found that one-third of teens from ages 13 to 17 stop having preventive visits, while another 40 percent only have one during this time period.
Start early and let it grow
When my children see their pediatrician for their annual check-up, she asks them to list the vegetables they eat, naming as many as they are old. Through this, she engages and builds a connection with them.
“When a child is a toddler, they can answer a few simple questions,” says Woodard. “I ask them what foods they like to eat, if they are brushing their teeth regularly and going to the dentist, and if they like school and have friends.”
As children grow, their pediatrician will ask more questions, and once puberty begins in late elementary school or early middle school, that relationship becomes important.
They’ll have the confidence to voice any questions or concerns they may have about their changing body. If they’ve had the opportunity to speak candidly with their doctor throughout the years, there’s now a trusted source for correct information.
The teenage years and beyond
The full benefits of letting your child speak for themselves when they’re younger will become clear in their teenage years.
“By the age of 13, most of the well-child visit may be done in private, but if the child isn’t comfortable speaking for themselves, then information may not be shared with the doctor,” Woodard explains. “Additionally, if parents insist they stay in the room, it may prevent the child from asking important questions.”
By empowering my children to speak for themselves to their doctor, they understand that they’re in control of their bodies.
Whether or not teenagers are comfortable talking about sex with their parents, if they’ve developed a relationship with their pediatrician, they can discuss sex, birth control, STI’s, and more with them. These crucial conversations help ensure that infections are properly treated and can even prevent the spreading of disease.
The ways that parents hijack these conversations is a little different. Unfortunately, teens may not have the opportunity to speak up because preventive visits aren’t as frequent in this age group. Although teens will continue to visit their doctor if they’re ill, the annual check-up — where these important conversations take place — greatly decrease.
While the reasons for this drop are unknown, one study from 2010 found that one-third of teens, ages 13 to 17, stopped having preventive visits, while another 40 percent only had one during that time period. That leaves very few who visit their doctor regularly, creating a bad habit.
Without establishing and maintaining a good connection with their doctor, teenagers may continue this trend into adulthood, only visiting the doctor when absolutely necessary.
In fact, when researchers asked adults why they avoid medical care, the main reasons included that they don’t trust or have confidence in their doctors, or that they know they won’t follow the doctor’s recommendations.
Empowerment builds self-confidence
By empowering my children to speak for themselves to their doctor, they understand that they’re in control of their bodies — they must care for them and recognize when something is wrong.
As they’ve grown, my kids’ confidence to talk with their doctor has helped develop an overall confidence, giving them the courage to speak up with their friends and teachers. At 9 years old, my daughter is already a strong advocate for herself in the classroom, telling her teacher what she needs as soon as she recognizes a problem.
As you empower your child to speak up and establish trust with their doctor, remember that you’re still the parent. Your support and encouragement is necessary.
“I think it’s great when kids are encouraged to talk for themselves, but parents need to be present,” Woodard stresses. “Turn off your phone. This is your child’s time. No matter the age, it’s important for them to know that this appointment is also important for you. Even if they are the ones giving the information, show them it’s important and be present.”
Gia Miller is a freelance journalist living in New York. She writes about health and wellness, medical news, parenting, divorce, and general lifestyle. Her work has been featured in publications including The Washington Post, Paste, Headspace, Healthday, and more. Follow her on Twitter.