Teaching Kids to Be In Charge of their Health: How and When

As we pass through each phase of our lives, we encounter many rites of passage. One that seems to be universal is the gradual change in responsibility that we encounter as we age. Each year, we begin adopting new responsibilities. With each phase, parents are in charge of setting an example, teaching us how, and then letting us take the reins on our own. One area we don’t usually consider when we think of slowly taking charge is our health.

Parents must gauge their children’s readiness for many things regarding their health. When are they old enough to be trusted to take prescription medication on their own, and when can they remember the names of those prescriptions in case of an emergency? The answers differ from one child to another. Gradually giving children a voice and understanding of what is happening at doctor visits and pharmacy errands is an integral part of teaching them to navigate their own health.

For children with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, knowing how to manage their health is even more important.

While including children in their health care often takes patience and extra time, it is still up to parents to encourage, remind, reinforce, and follow up on the responsibilities given to children.

Kid’s Health has age-appropriate recommendations on how to gradually give your children a voice in their health care:

At around age 12:

  • Explain a medical condition in age-appropriate language, then have your kids paraphrase it back to you. This helps kids learn about their diagnoses
  • Encourage kids to spend time alone with medical professionals (without you in the room). This helps establish trust within the patient-provider relationship, and it allows kids to speak candidly and ask questions they might be too fearful or embarrassed to ask in your presence
  • Have your kids learn what medications they take and why. If a child has an allergic reaction to medicines, such as penicillin, now’s the time to share that information
  • Kids who have a chronic condition should know whom to contact for medical equipment or supplies

At around age 14, kids should:

  • Know any personal history of major medical conditions, hospitalizations, operations, and treatments
  • Be aware of family medical history (for example, does diabetes or heart disease run in the family? Did someone die of cancer?)
  • Have the contact information for current and previous doctors
  • Know how to fill a prescription and refill a prescription
  • Have a current list of medicines and dosages

At around age 17, kids should:

  • Look into selecting an adult primary care doctor. Often, kids choose to visit the family doctor their parents visit
  • Have or know where to get copies of medical records (for example: from school or the doctor’s office)    
  • Know their health insurance information and how to contact a representative
  • Know how to get referrals to specialists, if needed
  • Know the limitations of health insurance coverage once they reach adulthood
  • Plan for medical coverage as an independent once parents’ coverage expires for dependents
  • If necessary, meet with the local Social Security office to apply for benefits

While these recommendations from Kid’s Health are helpful, every child and every family is different. Use your own judgment when it comes to shifting responsibilities to your children, and be patient and encouraging if they forget or don’t follow through.

Look for resources in your community for assistance. Health instructors/teachers, guidance counselors, and many other helpful people can usually be found in schools. In your community, look for hospitals and health systems that have patient-family advisory programs that can assist you in making decisions.