Preparing Older Children to Make Medical Decisions for Themselves

It used to be that children were seen and not heard at the doctor’s office. Parents did all the talking, even when the child was the patient. But time and research has shown that this isn’t the best way to go. Children should be able to participate in their health care. This will help them make medical decisions for themselves as they get older. There are steps parents can take to help prepare children for the complex world of health care and making informed decisions.

Path to improved health

Preparing your child to make health care decisions can start at a young age. Even children as young as 5 years old can make choices about their care. Here are ways you can help make that happen.

Elementary-aged children

The first thing parents can do is make sure the doctor talks to the child as a patient, instead of speaking only to the parent. The doctor should talk to the child using language that is appropriate for the child’s age. He or she should tell the child about their illness and any treatment that will be needed in a way they will understand. Children are more likely to go along with what’s happening if they understand the reasons for a treatment.

You can also let the child make choices along the way. Even a 5-year-old can choose which arm to get an IV in, or what flavor of medicine he or she wants. Being part of the process helps the child feel listened to. They will be more willing to cooperate if they feel like they have some choice in what’s happening to them.

The tween years

Around the age of 11, the child should do most of the talking in the doctor’s office. It’s important that they learn how to talk to a doctor and not be afraid. They need practice asking questions and becoming more comfortable talking with a doctor. That way, when they are old enough to be on their own, going to the doctor alone won’t be unfamiliar or scary.

Children of this age are generally mature enough to see the doctor by themselves for a routine visit, without a parent in the room. This gives them the chance to ask questions without worrying about your reaction. It also allows them to talk about things they might be too embarrassed to talk about in front of you.


As your child gets older, he or she will take on more responsibility for managing their own life. This can include getting themselves up in the morning, driving to school, working a part-time job, and managing time commitments and homework. Your child has many more opportunities to be responsible for their own health care, as well. The key to this is that you, the parent, shift your role. Step back from running the show and taking care of details. Let your teen start taking over.

Around age 14, kids should be able to:

  • Understand and explain any medical conditions they have.
  • Know what medicines they take and why. If your child has any allergies to any medicines, he or she needs to know what those are.
  • Know who to contact for medical equipment or supplies he or she might need if they have a chronic condition, such as diabetes.
  • Visit with the doctor without a parent in the room.
  • Answer questions about family history. This could include if cancer runs in the family, or if anyone has diabetes or heart disease.
  • Know their personal history of any major medical conditions, surgeries, or hospitalizations.

By the time they are 17 or 18 years old, many teens are preparing to leave home. They are going to need to know how to take care of themselves and their health care. Around this age, they should know:

  • How to make their own doctor appointments.
  • How to fill and refill a prescription and pick it up from the pharmacy.
  • How to look for a primary care doctor. This could include asking family or friends for referrals or navigating their insurance policy.
  • The information for their health insurance company and how to contact them. They should also have an idea of what their insurance does and does not cover.
  • How to get a referral to a specialist.
  • What they’re going to do when their coverage under their parents’ health coverage expires.

Teaching your children skills and procedures is key to helping them make medical decisions for themselves. So is showing your support by letting them take over responsibilities such as scheduling appointments or talking to doctors. You can also help them by being a good role model. Have a positive attitude about seeing your own doctor. Go to regular check-ups, eat right, and exercise. These good habits are likely to rub off on them.

Things to consider

Children who have chronic conditions or special needs might need more help making medical decisions as they get older. But they can still have independence in adulthood. If your child has special health needs, you may consider contacting:

  • A social worker. A social worker can find out if there are state or federal programs your child may qualify for. These could be health-related benefits, or help with employment, housing, or transportation. Your doctor’s office or local hospital may be able to direct you to a social worker who can help.
  • Your child’s diagnosis-specific group (for example, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation). The local chapters of these groups can be great resources of information. You can talk to other parents and families about what they’ve gone through. They can give you recommendations on local doctors, services, or programs.
  • Family advocacy groups. Some of these groups are dedicated to helping the families of kids with special needs. For example, Family Voices has local chapters that can help you navigate the health care system with your child.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How can my child participate in his or her own health care?
  • At what age should my child start visiting you on his or her own, without me being in the room?
  • What should I do if my child can’t remember what was talked about during their doctor appointment?
  • What can I do to help my child be more comfortable visiting the doctor by themselves?