Your child's bags may be packed for college, but do they know what to do if they get sick or need to see a doctor? Here's how to prep them to fly the nest safely when it comes to their health care.
Credit: Getty Images/Sitade. ART: ANNA HALKIDIS

When I went off to college, I was clueless on how to seek medical care. Now, as a practicing OB-GYN who loves educating young people and their parents about all the things they've never been taught in high school, I know we can and must do better.

Here are some tips to help your college-bound kiddo get off to their healthiest start.

Give Them Ownership of Their Health Care

"I didn't and still do not really feel confident with knowing who takes my insurance; I just knew that I was on my mom's plan," says Kayla*, a 26-year-old student at St. Petersburg College in Tampa, Florida. "In high school, I had no idea that I was able to set up my own appointments and go by myself if I needed to."

As parents we may think it's easier for us to navigate the health care system for our kids, but if we don't show them how to access care, how will they ever learn?

"We call this process a transition from the parent being the CEO of their child's health to the teen and then young adult taking charge," says Hina Talib, M.D., pediatrician, adolescent medicine specialist, and co-founder of Thread Health, a teen digital health service.

Starting in high school, supervise your child as they make their own appointments. Encourage them to communicate their own questions to their care provider. Empower your children to learn how to refill their medications, communicate their health and family history, and know how to get in touch with their doctor.

Insurance can also be a huge barrier to care. Go to your insurance webpage and help your teens walk through how to find doctors and clinics that take their insurance in the area where they are going off to school, so they aren't overwhelmed in the moment if they need care urgently.

Remember That Privacy Matters

Sarah Johnson*, a 21-year-old senior at University at Buffalo in New York says, "Having my mom answer questions for me at the doctor meant that I wasn't always honest with my providers or able to get the help I needed." This is why giving your teens space to talk to their providers alone is developmentally appropriate and so important. Offer this opportunity before they turn 18, the age when they are able to make their own medical decisions and are also legally entitled to health care privacy of protected information.

Dr. Talib agrees: "We know from studies that teens who are aware of confidentiality protections share more of their health behaviors with their medical teams and come back to seek care in the future." 

As a parent, know that when your doctor asks to talk to your child alone for part of the visit, it is to foster their growing independence—and that is a good thing!

Run Through "What If" Scenarios 

Preparing your child for possible scenarios means they are more likely to feel empowered to handle them if they arise. Sheila Kendall, a school counselor at Ida B. Wells High School in Portland, Oregon, says, "I tell both the student and the parent when they drop their student off in the fall to walk around and go inside the buildings that house counseling services, the health center, and know who works in student services—the people who can help you if challenges come up."

What if they get sick in the middle of the night? Mary*, mom to three sons, two of whom are currently in college, says prior to dropping her sons off at school she helped them identify the Urgent Care closest to campus that took their insurance. She also put together a kit of basic medications and a thermometer in case they were under the weather and assembled "life binders" that include vaccination records and copies of important documents.

Talk About Sex

With only 18 states requiring medically accurate sex education, it's no wonder so many freshmen arrive on campus not understanding the basics of safe sex. Knowing what kind of education your child got in school is crucial in being able to fill in any gaps. "I honestly don't recall any sustained conversation about understanding sex, how not to get pregnant, and what to do if the condom broke," recalls Nich* a 22-year-old fourth-year student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, about her high school sex education.

Nich is far from alone. When it comes to birth control, review what's available from the student health center, local clinics, or mail-order companies. Talk about emergency contraception, what truly is consent, where to go for STI testing, and give them resources they can go to if they have questions but don't want to talk about it with you. Feel daunting? It's OK—this is where partnering with your child's pediatrician can come into play to help guide those conversations.

Don't forget that what may have been covered in school often doesn't meet everyone's needs. Jace*, a 21-year-old senior at Tulane University in New Orleans, says, "As a queer trans man, I don't think my parents knew how to talk to me about sex, STIs, and pregnancy after I came out in high school." And Jace's high school sex education fell short, as "the only type of sex discussed was penis-in-vagina sex between cisgender men and women, and the language used was not inclusive—so I didn't really pay attention during sex ed."

Don't Forget Vaccinations

Making sure your child is up to date on all recommended vaccines before heading off to college is key. These include HPV, meningococcal disease, COVID, flu, and pertussis vaccines. All of them are important, but as an OB-GYN I want to call special attention to the HPV vaccine, which protects against nine strains of the human papillomavirus that are linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, throat, and mouth. With 80 percent of sexually active people getting this at some point, vaccination is hugely important. Rest assured: giving your child the HPV vaccine has not been shown to alter their sexual behavior.

"I had not had my HPV vaccines before college because my mother told my PCP that I wouldn't be having sex and thus did not need it," says Nich, who did go on to become sexually active while at college and felt completely unprepared.

Lean On Resources

You are not alone in helping your teen leave the nest. "Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for getting ready to go to college," advises Dr. Talib. You can also talk to your child's doctors to make sure you haven't left anything off the checklist.

You've got this, parents.

*Names have been changed and last names have been withheld for privacy.