7 Essential Questions Parents Ask About Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine

Wondering whether your growing daughter would benefit by seeing an adolescent doctor? Curious how these specialists differ from pediatricians?

In this article, I’ll explain what adolescent medicine is and how it differs from traditional pediatrics. You’ll also better understand the potential benefits (and possible downsides!) to switching your child’s care from a pediatrician to an adolescent provider. 

Lastly, if you’re interested in finding a practice with an adolescent doctor in your area, you’ll connect you with resources to make it easier. 

Read on to learn what adolescent medicine entails and how it can boost your daughter’s well-being and help your family better manage this unique stage of life.

Pediatricians primarily focus on the care of infants and children up to age 18. 

On the other hand, the age range for adolescent medicine is much smaller. It typically includes children 10 to 25 years old, with some adolescent practices working with children and young adults in the smaller age range of 11 to 24 years of age. 

Adolescent healthcare providers include doctors, dietitians, gynecologists, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, and more. 

Adolescent providers have additional training specifically tailored to address the unique physical, emotional, and behavioral challenges and changes experienced during this short yet transformative and complex stage of life. 

Adolescent medicine specialists are equipped to manage and provide comprehensive care tailored to specific conditions unique to this age group. Here are some of the key areas they focus on when treating your child: 

Physical Development

Adolescents undergo rapid physical changes in a short period of time, which is why specialists are experts in:

  • Puberty: Sexual development occurs during this time and specialists know how to monitor these changes and address concerns related to early puberty, menstrual irregularities, and hormonal imbalances.
  • Nutrition and Heathy Eating: Thanks to rapid growth, adolescents’ nutritional needs are very high. Iron deficiency is a common problem, for example. 
  • Weight Changes: Weight gain is natural during this time for girls yet so are peer pressures to match cultural expectations to have a body that’s taught and slim. This combination ramps up eating disorder risk during this developmental stage.

Reproductive Health

  • Sexual Education and Counseling: Adolescence is a time of increased sexual feelings and  sexual identity. Adolescents need accurate information about sexual health, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Menstrual Health: The start of your period can be confusing and stressful. An adolescent gynecologist can help girls manage severe cramps, period irregularities, pelvic pain, and heavy bleeding.

Mental and Emotional Well-being

  • Mental Health Screening: Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders run high during adolescence. Providers have these problems on their radar and conduct regular screenings for them.
  • Stress Management: Academic pressure, social challenges, and identity issues crop up at this time. Adolescent experts help kids develop effective coping strategies and stress management techniques, which they can use for life!

Substance Use and Abuse

  • Prevention and Intervention: Experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can begin during adolescence. Age-appropriate education about the risks associated with substance use can be helpful

Preventive Care

  • Vaccinations and Screenings: Adolescents need routine vaccinations (e.g., HPV, meningococcal vaccines) and screenings (e.g., cholesterol, blood pressure) to prevent future health problems. Healthcare providers emphasize the importance of preventive care and healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Transition of Care: If your child has a chronic disease that requires regular medical attention (such as diabetes, blood disorders, cancer or a congenital condition) these providers can help empower your adolescents to manage their health independently. 

Behavioral Health

  • Risk-Taking Behaviors: Adolescents are prone to engaging in risky behaviors like reckless driving or unsafe sexual practices. An adolescent provider knows to educate about consequences and promote responsible decision-making.
  • Peer Relationships: Understanding peer dynamics and social influences is essential for addressing issues like bullying, peer pressure, and relationship conflicts.

Adolescent providers can be pivotal when it comes to helping your daughter transition from being a child to a young adult in the best possible way. They know how to promote healthy behaviors in age-appropriate ways. 

Typically, the provider will meet with the parents or caregivers and the child together to discuss any current issues or concerns, as well as answer any questions. This is one main difference between how pediatric and adolescent medicine is practiced.

Next the provider will meet with your child alone to allow them time to speak confidentially about any concerns they may not feel comfortable talking about in front of you. 

If this is the first time your child has met with a provider alone it’s normal to feel nervous about it. 

Remember that your child is going through a time of increasing autonomy and responsibility. It’s normal and healthy to allow them some personal space and autonomy in all areas of their life including managing their healthcare. 

Will I know what they said? If the provider feels that any information your child shared is putting their safety at risk, they are obligated to share this with you. Otherwise the conversation is kept confidential.

A good provider will encourage your child to be honest and share information with you, as well as offer them other resources for support if they do not. 

If your child has your consent, then yes. 

If your child doesn’t have your consent, then that will depend on the state you live in and the reason they are seeking care. 

In many states, minors can consent to their own medical care (whether from an adolescent doctor or other) if they’re married, incarcerated, emancipated, serving in the armed forces, pregnant or already a parent. 

Additionally, if they don’t fall into one of the above categories they might also be able to get medical care without a parent’s consent if it is for a specific and sensitive reason such as for birth control or STI testing or treatment, mental health or drugs and alcohol.

Again, this does differ from state to state. 

My practice is based in New York and I refer parents to the booklet Teenagers, Health Care and The Law  for more information. In fact, I think this document can be helpful for a basic understanding of the issues at play regardless of the state you live in

If you live outside of New York, I recommend doing an online search for “minors healthcare” plus the name of your state (say “California” or “Florida”) to learn specifically what is and isn’t allowed where you live. 

After working with teens and preteens for over a decade, I’d say yes! Particularly if they’re struggling with a social, mental, or nutrition issue. 

You’ll be giving her an opportunity to get care that’s uniquely suited to her specific (and rapidly changing) needs. 

Adolescence is such a complex time and these doctors look at the problem they’re struggling with through the lens of their specific stage of development.

Take my speciality, nutrition, for example. The eating behaviors and nutrients needed by an adolescent girl are very different from that of an elementary school kid or adult. 

What was normal for her at eight years old may not be at 12. An adolescent nutritionist can shed light on behaviors like stopping after school for snacks or suddenly refusing to eat certain foods or meals with the family. 

An adolescent provider can guide you as far as what to worry about and what to ignore, as well as help you feel more prepared for what’s to come! With these specialized tools in hand, you’ll feel more confident and be better able to empower your daughter. 

Start by asking your pediatrician for recommendations or referrals. Adolescent specialists are often found working right alongside pediatricians (even working in the same practices), so you might already be more connected to one that you realize.

Basically, instead of looking for a pediatrician’s office you can look for a practice that refers to itself as offering pediatric and adolescent medicine.

If you live close to an academic medical center (say, a hospital that’s affiliated with a university or college), you can also check there. Often, these kinds of teaching hospitals have pediatric and adolescent medicine specialities.  

You can also check with a nurse at your child’s middle or high school as they typically have resources tailored to this age group. 

To access an online directory, you can put your zip code into the Society for Adolescent Health Medicine. Looking for a psychiatric psychiatrist? Try the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry directory.   

You can let her know that an adolescent doctor is no different than her pediatrician, with the exception that they know a bit more about being a teenager. 

The idea is to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with her and the visit is meant to help her connect with someone who really understands what someone her age is going through. 

It’s also helpful to explain the main difference of the visit itself, which will be that you will leave the room and she will have a chance to speak to the doctor privately. Explain that this is an opportunity for her to bring up anything she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about. 

If she’s nervous, you can prepare her for her visit by giving her a short, age-appropriate article to read. 

Things to know about Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine
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