Kids should be involved in their own health care, experts say. Here's how to talk about therapy and medication options.
Why's it's important to talk to kids after a diagnosis if they need therapy or medication
In a perfect world, your kid would blissfully sail through childhood in perfect health. In reality, kids get sick — and sometimes they need regular medication or therapy to deal with larger health issues.
It can be overwhelming if your child receives a serious or chronic diagnosis, and it's understandable to have to process a lot in your own mind in order to help convey what's going on to your child. But, when it comes to treatment, experts say it's vital to make sure your child understands what's recommended for them, and why it's so crucial that they follow their care plan. Here's how to navigate this.
Why should you talk to children about their treatment plan?
Doctors may recommend regular medications and therapy for a child for a slew of health conditions, ranging from ADHD to diabetes to depression. Regardless of your child's diagnosis, "it's important to be as up front and transparent with them as possible" about what's going on, clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life.
Dr. Danelle Fisher, pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees. "It's really important to involve a child in their own health care and explain what we're doing," she tells Yahoo Life. "It's only fair. A child deserves an explanation about what's been going on with their health and why they're taking medication, if it's recommended."
This isn't just something that should come from you: Your child's doctor should also try to communicate with your child as clearly as possible about their diagnosis and treatment, Dr. Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Mercy Family Care Physician in Baltimore, Md., tells Yahoo Life. "Starting as early as possible, it is important for a physician to communicate to any patient, especially a child, the importance of taking control of his or her own health," he says. "This means everything from taking and completing a medication course to taking medications daily for a prolonged period."
Children should also be informed about what can happen if they don't take their medication or complete it to help them understand why it's so important to be consistent, Woods says.
At what age should you have this conversation?
"We start talking to kids about this as soon as they can hear," Fisher says. "Kids should always understand what medication or treatment is. Otherwise, we're not going to get them to buy in and feel better."
Messaging around the importance of taking medications may need to be reemphasized during the teenage years, even if your child has a medication they've been on for years, Woods says. "It is often during these preteen and teen years that children have a sense of independence and autonomy and may decide that they do not want to take the medication, regardless of the consequences," he says.
How to talk to your child about a treatment plan
Of course, age matters and what you say to a toddler is very different from how you would explain this to an adolescent. "This is hard to explain to a 3-year-old, but you can say something like, 'This inhaler helps with your breathing' — that's all they really need to know and will understand," Fisher says. "As they get older, you can add more: 'This pill is for your allergies.' 'This inhaler is for your asthma, and it helps open your airways.'"
If your child needs to undergo therapy for a mental health issue, Gallagher also recommends being up front about why it's recommended versus simply telling them they need to see a therapist. "You don't want it to feel punitive," she says. "You'll set the therapist up to fail if it feels like a punishment." She suggests having a conversation like, "We're going to go talk to somebody who is a licensed professional who will help you and me address what's been going on lately. Then, we can figure out how to help you."
Gallagher says the conversation should be "no different than you would talk to your kid about going to the pediatrician," adding that the overall message should be that "sometimes we need to go to the doctor when we can't manage things."
Your child may have questions about why they need medication or therapy, and Fisher says it's important to "be honest when answering questions and speak to them as simply as possible" to help them understand what's going on.
If your child has questions about their treatment that you can't answer, Fisher recommends talking to your prescribing doctor. "They should be able to give an explanation, as well as answer any questions," she says.
Ultimately, Gallagher stresses the importance of being candid with your child as much as possible. "No secrets and no surprises," she says.
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