Master the fine art of talking to teenagers-for their good!

October 10, 2006

Pediatricians are incredibly important to adolescents-they are the only professionals who see teenagers repeatedly, and in confidence, through the adolescent years.

Oct. 10-Atlanta-Pediatricians are incredibly important to adolescents-they are the only professionals who see teenagers repeatedly, and in confidence, through the adolescent years.

That’s the take-home message delivered yesterday by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, a pediatrician at the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who spoke at a scientific session of AAP’s National Convention and Exhibition here. Dr. Ginsburg’s critical advice flows from the experiences of his work with a range of adolescents-from the children of his coworkers at CHOP to the disadvantaged youth of that city who have turned to drug-dealing, gang violence, and prostitution to cope with the dismal circumstances of their lives.

The importance of your intervention in the problems of adolescents cannot be overstated, Dr. Ginsburg emphasized: Consider that suicide is the second most common cause of death among adolescents in the United States today, and that one half of teenagers who commit suicide visited a physician within the month preceding their death.

“Kids will not, and should not, talk to you unless you create a zone of safety for them,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “And you can’t win kids over immediately. But you can gain their trust if you give them three or four minutes of your time during each office visit.”

Here is what Dr. Ginsburg says an adolescent needs to hear from you:

  • Why you are going to ask personal questions from time to time (“My job is to save lives. I know what hurts kids, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”)

  • Honesty is important to you (“I’ll be honest and answer your questions, but if you aren’t honest with me, I can’t help you as much as I want to.”)

  • You are not about judgment or punishing (“I can’t punish you and I don’t want to. I like and take care of teenagers who do all sorts of things, and I’ll respect whatever you tell me.”)

  • You respect privacy, to the extent that it does not compromise your ability to protect the adolescent or others (“I’ll keep what you tell me to myself, unless I have your permission. But you need to know that I have to work with other people who care about your welfare if your life or someone else’s is in danger, or if there is an adult who is doing you harm.”)

  • Why you are trustworthy (“My job is to help kids, and I want to make sure you stay well and safe.”)

  • You respect the choice of responding to questions (“You don’t have to answer the questions that I ask you. But I’d rather you tell me that you don’t want to talk about something than lie to me.”)

Parents of teenagers need to know that you are not under the impression that you can help their child more than they can, Dr. Ginsburg said. They also need to know that they will not be excluded if you find that their child is in trouble.

Importantly, said Dr. Ginsberg, find the teenager’s positive attributes and focus on those, not on behaviors that are inappropriate.

“There’s never been a human being that was inspired to rise above their circumstances by someone telling them what is wrong with them,” Dr. Ginsburg advised. “Inspire teens by telling them what is already good and right with them.”