Why do you like working with middle school students and their parents?
This age is a critical one for developing a relationship with the health care system. If adolescents have a good experience, they will feel comfortable enough to utilize the medical system to sustain and support their health for many years to come. If they have a bad experience – an experience that engenders distrust or fear – they may not engage in preventive health care, and this could have devastating personal and public health ramifications.
What is a surprising or interesting thing you learned working with middle schoolers and their parents?
Over the years, despite the common perception that adolescents will do what they want, nearly all adolescents follow their parents guidance when it comes to healthcare. Most adolescents want guidance from their parents, and they do, in general, follow their parents’ health advice. Parents are the strongest partners we have in helping teens achieve optimal health!
What developmental milestones and health changes catch off guard or surprise parents and students for rising middle schoolers?
Despite adolescent bravado, I think students’ vulnerability in terms of accessing and utilizing the healthcare system is a surprise. Parents often think their children have been paying more attention that they actually have to what has been going on with their own health. It is often a surprise to ME when patients do not have an awareness of their own medications – that they take daily!!! Adolescents have relied so heavily on their parents to manage healthcare issues, they do not know their own diagnoses, medications, drug allergies, etcetera. We often have to start teaching adolescents with the basics and help get them educated about their own health – then about how to protect that health status.
What is the biggest piece of advice you have for a parent of a rising middle schooler?
In terms of health, the best piece of advice I have is to start from the beginning with how to care for yourself; it needs to start with the importance of getting the right amount of sleep and eating three meals a day. That work needs to start early so it is not a routine a child is trying to establish in their mid-teens (when it is harder to do). Paying attention and knowing the signs that a child needs a break, needs more support, needs more autonomy are critical to helping a child negotiate independence. Look for signs of stress (irritability, crying easily, poor sleep, dropping grades) and ask questions frequently. They are just starting the journey to adulthood and they cannot always verbalize when they hit a barrier. We need to recognize it before it becomes a problem.