Preteen and teen health

The preteen and teen years (ages 11 to 17) can bring a lot of physical and emotional change for your child. That’s why regular well child visits are just as important now as they were in your child’s early years. Let’s learn more about your child’s unique needs during adolescence and how you can continue to support their health and well-being.

Understanding adolescent development

Adolescence is a time of transition into adulthood. It includes rapid development in the brain and body.1 This is typically when kids go through puberty, which brings on many physical changes. These include things like breast development and beginning menstruation for girls, and a deepening voice and growth in sex organs for boys. Both girls and boys typically experience a growth spurt and may deal with skin conditions like acne.2

There are also big developmental changes happening in the brain. And while your child’s ability for complex thinking increases significantly, these brain changes don’t all happen at the same time. This is why you may notice mood swings, increased risk-taking and lapses in judgment.1 Rest assured, this is all a normal part of adolescent development. 

Supporting preteen and teen health and wellness

Because so much change happens during this time of life, your child may feel many emotions. They may feel excited about having more independence and stressed about new challenges. Communicate openly and offer a safe space for them to share their feelings. Here are other ways you can help support your child’s physical and emotional health and wellness. 

Prioritize preventive care

Keeping up with regular well child appointments can help your child stay healthy and catch any concerns earlier. Immunizations are an important part of these visits. Know what to expect at your child’s next check up by reviewing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for vaccines for preteens and teens, including the HPV vaccine. You can also use our preventive care checklist tool to see recommended screenings and immunizations based on your child’s age and gender. 

Focus on healthy eating and staying active

As your child’s body changes and grows, encourage them to choose healthy, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and low-fat dairy.3 Help them understand how these foods fuel our bodies better than sugary foods and drinks. You can also help your preteen or teen make healthy food choices4 by:

  • Providing nutritious meals and snacks at home

  • Teaching sensible portion sizes

  • Suggesting ways to choose healthy options when eating out with friends

Staying physically active is important too. The CDC recommends kids get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. Find activities that engage your child and keep them interested, like joining a sports team, biking or walking. Developing good habits now can help your child maintain a healthy weight, promote lifelong wellness and help prevent risk factors for certain health conditions.5

Encourage good sleep habits

Sleep plays a big role in your child’s overall health and wellness. Kids who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk for health and behavior issues, like obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health and problems with attention. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 9 to 12 hours of sleep for kids ages 6 to 12, and 8 to 10 hours of sleep for kids ages 13 to 18.6 You can help support good sleep habits by:

  • Having your child go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends

  • Limiting light exposure and technology use in the evenings, including not allowing devices in your child’s bedroom6

Talk about teen mental health

As children mature during adolescence, they begin creating social and emotional habits that may affect their long-term mental health and well-being. Kids typically become more independent and get more exposure to things like social media and peer pressure. They may also experiment with risk-taking behaviors related to substance use or sex.7 With all this change, teenagers may begin to struggle with mental health. In fact, half of mental health conditions start by age 14.8

If you’re noticing changes in your child’s personality, mood or behavior, it may be a sign they need help.9 Start mental health conversations with honesty and empathy. Ask your teen how they’re doing and take their feelings seriously. Creating a safe, judgement-free space may encourage your child to open up.

Need to find a provider?

If you’re a UnitedHealthcare member, view our network of pediatricians, family doctors and behavioral health providers.