Talking About Hard Stuff With Your Doctor

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doctor talking to teen

By Jack Maypole, M.D., Director, Comprehensive Care Program, Boston Medical Center. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine

As a pediatrician, I find that most teens I see in my office are pretty uncomfortable talking to me about personal habits that might affect their health, like smoking or using drugs or alcohol. I get it—a doctor’s routine questions during a visit could easily seem like a big invasion of a teen’s privacy. 

But doctors aren’t trying to embarrass you. In fact, doctors and nurse practitioners work hard to support teens’ privacy.

So, let’s clear up some questions and concerns you might have about talking openly to your doctor once Mom or Dad leaves the room. Every health care provider is different, but these ideas are gathered from treating teens for almost 15 years.

What You Say in the Exam Room Stays in the Exam Room

By middle school, most young people can and should answer questions about their own health. Parents usually are asked to leave the examination room, so the doctor and teen can talk frankly by themselves. Some kids feel exposed or a little freaked out—what will happen when the door closes?  Nothing crazy.

In fact, the goal for this chat is to make a space to discuss issues privately.   

Professional rules require health care providers to keep what our patients tell us private. We can’t break that trust without your say-so, unless there is a safety concern, like if you were at risk for hurting yourself or others.

Your doctor will likely ask you a short list of questions to find out how alcohol, drugs, or tobacco affect your life (or not). Check out the CRAFFT questionnaire, one of the question lists we use.

Why We Ask These Questions

“All adolescents are asked the exact same questions,” notes my colleague Christina Nordt, a doctor of Adolescent Medicine at Boston Medical Center. “So, teens should not feel like we are making judgments about them. We begin asking questions about drugs and alcohol once patients reach about 11 or 12 years old.”

The idea is to work with you to address potential problems—are you driving around with someone who you know is drunk or high? Has using or taking drugs or alcohol gotten beyond your control? Do any of these things put you at risk for getting sick or hurt, or put you in a place you’d rather not be?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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