Viewing our adolescent patients through a positive lens

January 1, 2007

Do you find it difficult to have trusting relationships with your adolescent patients? Are you sometimes afraid to find out too much? The author explains how to open up conversations by focusing on the teenager's strengths-and how rewarding the results can be.

DR. GINSBURG is an associate professor of pediatrics, the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is also Health Services Director at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in Philadelphia. He is the author of A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The health of our adolescent patients is tightly linked with their psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Therefore, our ability to improve adolescent health depends on forging a trusting relationship with open communication. But two common misconceptions may interfere with our willingness to venture beyond the physical needs of adolescents:

A starting point to effective communication is to take a positive view of our patients, because if we do so, they will be more likely to talk to us and to be receptive to our guidance.

A first step in contemplating change is to have confidence in the potential to change. That confidence derives from an inherent sense of competence and is undermined by shame or being viewed as a failure. Adolescents live up to-or down to-our expectations of them. If you expect adolescents to have an "attitude," they will. On the other hand, when they know that the interviewer enjoys their thoughtfulness, they will open up and share their thoughts. Finally, adolescents want to be liked, just as we all do. They respond far better and listen more attentively to health messages that are given by someone who genuinely seems to care for and respect them.

Because nearly 80% of deaths among adolescents are related to risk behaviors, avoiding or reducing these behaviors should be a top priority in our clinical encounters. But as we incorporate a positive approach, we need to move beyond the risk-centered approach. Is our ultimate goal really to prevent adolescents from engaging in these behaviors? Or, is it to facilitate the development of youth well-prepared to be creative, responsible, and productive human beings?

If we define success for youth in terms of behaviors they avoid, rather than who they are, or what we hope they might accomplish, we perpetuate lower expectations for them. Imagine if a 17-year-old girl hoping to volunteer in your practice was introduced to you in this manner: "Here's Anna, she's not pregnant, not drug addicted, not depressed, not engaged in violence or self-mutilation, and she's even not sexually active! May she work here?" You would certainly ask, "Who is she, how will she add to the office, what are her capabilities and strengths?"

We must never consider it adequate for our patients to be risk-free; we must search for and promote their strengths. We must hold them to high expectations to reinforce our message that they have the potential of success. Advocates of youth development and resiliency believe that a positive, strength-based approach will produce more successful youth and deserves full consideration as a means to reduce risk.

Setting the stage

To see the best in our adolescent patients, we need to first create a setting in which they are comfortable revealing their thoughts and complex emotions. Adolescents sometimes withhold information or give monosyllabic responses because they are suspicious and self-protective. This creates a barrier to engagement, because we learn from experience that our attempts at connection may be futile. However, we should not expect anybody, including our teenage patients, to reveal himself (herself) unless he grasps both the benefit of doing so and the safety of the setting.