KEEPING OUR TEENS HEALTHY
This month, we present the second part of our special report on kids’ health, focusing on the teenage years.
We talk to Dr Tammy Kimpton about the top health issues facing teenage children and what you can do to make sure your teenagers stay healthy and happy. Dr Tammy is a mum to three children of her own, and in her job as a doctor she takes care of other people’s children. As a GP registrar working in addiction medicine at Wyong Hospital, NSW, Dr Tammy knows firsthand the issues our teenagers face as they journey through the, sometimes confusing, teen years.
AGE 13-18 – THE TEEN YEARS
The teenage years can be a very confusing time for children as they learn about becoming an adult and dealing with hormones and another big growth period. Parents should stay informed about the areas of physical, sexual and mental health to help their teenagers come through this period, healthy, happy and well adjusted.
Staying fit and healthy:
When it comes to your teenager’s physical health, Dr Tammy Kimpton says that the same basic rules apply as when they were younger.
“Teenagers still need to have a good diet with all your different coloured fruits and vegies. It’s also really important to encourage exercise. Your average teenager may want to sleep for 15 hours a day, but for their physical and mental health they still need to have plenty of fresh air and exercise,” she says.
Keeping your kids off drugs:
To stay healthy, both physically and mentally, it’s important for your teenagers to avoid both illicit drug use and misusing legal drugs, such as alcohol and prescription medications. It is a good idea to educate both yourself and your child about drug use, as well as making sure you understand what you can do to help your child if they become addicted to a substance.
“The use of drugs and the accompanying risky behaviour is associated with the teen years, but it can even start even earlier than that, around the ages of 10 and 12,” says Dr Tammy.
It can be difficult to know if your child is experimenting with drugs, but there are some simple things to look out for.
“Changes in behaviour may indicate drug use. Things such as not talking to you when previously they told you everything, locking themselves in their room, having a group of friends group you don’t know and aren’t invited to know, changes in their school marks, being depressed and not interested in the things they’re normally interested in, or just an overall feeling that your child is a lot less happy than they previously were – all these could indicate a possible problem,” says Dr Tammy.
“Other signs may include a child who becomes a lot more animated, talking a lot more, doing a lot of risky things or becoming heavily involved with a church or band groups when previously they weren’t. Having said that, teenagers do go through a lot of changes, often don’t want to talk to their parents and do change their interests, so in the end it comes down to your instinct and feelings. You need to ask yourself, is what they are doing consistent with what you did as a teenager and what their group of friends are doing? If so, do they seem normal for teenagers.”
What you can do:
Even though your teenage child may think they are an adult, remember they are still a child and that you still have an important role to play as their parent.
“If you are worried your child may be using drugs, it is important to maintain a good relationship with them,” says Dr Tammy.
“When you are setting boundaries, you need to be realistic about them. Understand that your teenager is in the process of becoming an adult, so they need a bit more responsibility and to be involved in the setting of boundaries.
“It is important to keep communication happening by asking them questions, such as ‘How are you feeling at the moment?’, ‘Who are your friends?’ and ‘What have you been doing today?’ It’s also important for teenagers to have good role models: it’s hard to tell teenagers they shouldn’t be drinking if you drink heavily – remember they will follow what you do, not what you say.”
Sexual health and body image:
Much as we would like to ignore the fact that our little babies are growing up, the teen years are the most common years for children to begin experimenting with their sexuality. These are the years when they will be the most insecure and concerned about the way they look.
“Sexual health, the initiation of sex relationships and the maintaining of those sex relationships is the next big issue for teenagers,” says Dr Kimpton. “Obviously it is important for your children to know about safe-sex practices and it is equally important that they maintain a healthy weight and body image.”
What you can do:
Don’t rely on your child’s school to talk to them about sexual health. Instead, it’s important to consider the fact that they may be sexually active. Talk to them about the importance of safe sex and why they need to always use a condom to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections).
Once again it is important to maintain good communication with your children. That way, they can talk to you about any issues they may be having. You may also want to suggest that they visit the doctor on their own to talk about issues they are uncomfortable discussing with you.
Most teenagers are sensitive about their body image so be sure to be positive about their changing body. Your child’s weight may vary during his or her teenage years, but if your child is losing too much weight or has a sudden weight gain, don’t be afraid to talk to them about your concerns. Remember you can always visit your local health worker or doctor for additional support and information.
Mental health and hormones:
We all remember how miserable we felt at times as teenagers. Some of the blame rests with the fact that our hormones were kicking in and there was a lot of physical change going in. For most teenagers this is normal, but some teenagers may experience hormonal changes that need treatment by a doctor or health worker.
“The whole thing about adolescence is that you are in one big state of hormonal imbalance; deciding what is normal or abnormal sometimes relies on trusting your instincts and knowledge of your child. Hormones won’t turn your sweet little girl into a monster overnight. They may make her a bit snappier than usual, or she may make some decisions that aren’t the cleverest, but they shouldn’t cause big sudden changes in behaviour. Ask yourself is what your child doing consistent with what they’ve done over the last 10 years of their life and is it consistent with what their peers are doing,” suggests Dr Tammy.
What you can do:
If you think your child has a serious hormonal imbalance it is important to seek professional help.
“Of course, if you are concerned about anything, the answer is always to go and see your doctor,” says Dr Tammy.
“They will be able to realistically help you decide if your child has a mental-health issue or an imbalance in their hormones. If they do, they will generally send your child for an assessment with the adolescent mental-health team. If everything is okay, your doctor may be able to reassure you that your child’s behaviour is perfectly normal and similar to the behaviour of the last 15 teenagers she’s had in her surgery.”
Stay suicide aware
Unfortunately, due to increased drug use, hormonal imbalance and the many changes occurring during the teenage years, there is an increased risk of suicide.
“During the teen years there is a huge risk of suicide in this age group, particularly for our teenagers,” says Dr Tammy.
The majority of people who commit suicide talk to somebody about it beforehand, so keep the lines of communication open with your child. Other warning signs include talking, writing or joking about death or talking about life being pointless. You should also pay attention if your child is feeling hopeless or depressed or is withdrawing or avoiding contact with other people. In young people, a significant warning sign can also be if they give away personal possessions for no obvious reason. Risky behaviour, such as driving dangerously, may also indicate drug use and/or suicidal thoughts.
What you can do:
Once again, keep the lines of communication open with your child and keep an eye out for warning signs. If you are at all concerned about your teenager, talk to your local health worker or doctor. It is also important that you have an honest conversation with your child about your concerns. If you think your child is in immediate danger, call a professional counsellor, the police or a doctor for help and stay with your child until they arrive. For more detailed information on warning signs and what you can do to help, visit www.suicideprevention.com.au.