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Focus on Pediatrics: OK to teach teens as adults, but be creative
Teens can think abstractly about health info
Adolescence is the age when children begin to be able to rationalize consequences and think abstractly. They can understand how an illness or procedure might impact their future, says Lindsay Damron, CCLS, a child life specialist on the Comprehensive Inpatient Rehab Unit at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta Scottish Rite Campus.
The cognitive ability usually begins around age 13, yet regardless of their age, they can be very immature or very mature adolescents. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use general assessment skills when providing education. Start with basic information and then assess their comprehension. Make it a game, telling the teens that you will give them a little quiz, she advises. If they have understood the information, build upon the lesson.
Generally speaking, mature adolescents can be taught as adults. "I would talk to them just as I would talk to an adult off the street who didn’t have a lot of medical background," says Damron.
Someone who has reached middle adolescence might be approached as an adult that doesn’t have a lot of education. They have adult reasoning, but it is not yet well developed, she explains.
Those in early adolescence are at the end of the school-age developmental stage and need even less information. "If you give too much information, they will get confused," says Damron.
"If they were to have a chronic illness that would severely impact their life in five years, that would be too much information. They need to know what will happen this week," she explains. For example, they could learn what medicine they will be taking and their treatment, but the impact five years in the future would need to be taught when they were more mature.
Peers are extremely important during adolescence, for they act as a child’s support system. While they are starting to find their own identity, they are doing that in the realm of being accepted by their peers. They want to fit in, but they also are searching for the kind of person they are and what they have to offer.
A good way to educate teens is to get them in a group setting with a physician or nurse present to answer questions. If you can create a spark to get them asking questions, you will create a nice dialogue for learning, says Damron. "They will fuel off each other," she explains.
Also important to teens is privacy and their body image. She tells health care workers to knock on the door when entering the room of a teen patient. "If you are educating teen-agers about something that has had a huge impact on their physical appearance, that is foremost in their thoughts."
While it is important to discuss emotional issues such as a physically altered appearance, educators first must foster a relationship in order for teens to feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings. Often simply beginning with basic information will lead to a discussion of emotional issues, she says.
Education for adolescents works best if it is fun and informal. Damron often plays the card game Uno with teen-age boys. Every time they put down a red card, they must state something about their illness that makes them angry.
In addition to games, education can be incorporated into a craft or cooking, something that results in a finished product. "They can listen as well as ask questions. It is a little more comfortable than a teacher-and-student setting," says Damron.