How to support your teen to develop new health-care skills

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Help your teen to learn new skills by breaking down tasks and skills into smaller more manageable steps and using techniques such as forward chaining, backward chaining and shadowing.

Key Points

  • There are many ways to help support your teen as they take on more responsibility for their own health-care. You can ask them what they would like to learn and you could give them responsibility for low risk tasks.
  • You can break down tasks and skills into smaller more manageable steps and gradually give them responsibility as they master each step.
  • There are different techniques you can use to help your teen to gradually learn new skills. These include forward chaining, backward chaining and shadowing.

There are many ways to support your child to learn skills and habits to look after their own health. For example, you might ask your child what they already feel comfortable doing and what areas they would like to focus on.

Another way is to let your child take responsibility for some “low risk” tasks. This is quite easy because the consequences of their not following through are fairly low. For example, if your son misses his clinic appointment because of an exam and he didn’t call to rebook the appointment, he can likely be seen in another clinic fairly soon afterwards. However, asking your teen to take full responsibility for other tasks (such as taking medicines) can have serious consequences if they do not follow through.

This is why it makes sense to break important tasks or skills into more manageable steps. As your child shows that they can manage a step, you can help them take the next one.

Break tasks and skills into smaller steps

The first part of this process is to consider the skills your child will need to take care of their own health as an adult. For example, they will need to:

  • manage their medicines
  • follow a suitable diet
  • keep up with regular exercise
  • book and attend clinic appointments
  • do bloodwork and tests when required
  • communicate with health-care professionals

Take each of these tasks and think about all the steps they entail for an adult. For example, if you take medicine, you need to:

  • receive the prescription from the doctor
  • keep the prescription safe
  • take the prescription to your pharmacy
  • pick up the medicine
  • receive instructions if it is a new medicine
  • pay for the medicine (if it is not covered by a drug plan)
  • fill your dosette
  • store the dosette in an appropriate place
  • remember when to take medicines and keep track of when more are needed

Help your teen learn new skills gradually

Most parents find that their child fails if they suddenly give them full responsibility for these tasks. However, you can help your child learn these skills more gradually, and effectively, through:

  • forward chaining
  • backward chaining
  • shadowing

Forward chaining

Using this approach, you encourage and support your child to complete the first step (receiving the prescription from the doctor). You would complete the rest of the steps yourself.

Once you see your child is competent in taking the prescription from the doctor, you would ask them to store it safely until you can go together to the pharmacy. There, you would hand the prescription to the pharmacist and do all the remaining steps.

As your teen becomes more confident and capable in completing each step, you can ask them to take on the next step and then the next one until they are doing all the steps themselves.

Backward chaining

Backward chaining uses the same step-by-step approach, but it starts at the end rather than the beginning. So, using the medication example again, you would first have your child simply remember to take their medicines. Once this skill is mastered, you would ask your child to learn to fill the dosette. When your child is comfortable and competent in this step, you would teach them to put the medicine in the proper place (with clear instructions from you) when you bring it home from the pharmacy. You would continue to ask your child to get involved in each previous step until they are able to complete the entire chain of steps on their own.


Another way to teach your child how to carry out important tasks is by having them shadow you as you do them. This means that your teen is present and (hopefully) paying attention as you complete these tasks so that they know what to do when it’s their turn to complete these tasks.

Most children may not be able to tell someone exactly what happens when they hand in a prescription at a pharmacy, but if they know where to hand it in and where to go to pick up their medication, that is enough for them to complete these tasks themselves. Shadowing with lots of repetition can be a very successful way to teach a child health-care skills.

Dividing tasks effectively

If you consider the list of skills your child needs to learn to care for themselves as an adult, you may have definite ideas about which ones your child should learn first. When your child is young, you can usually implement these ideas fairly easily. If your child was previously well and has only become unwell as a teenager, it may make more sense to sit down with them to develop a list of skills to learn.

Come up with a plan together and review it often (not only when your teen is struggling but also when they are doing well). Most families find that negotiating the types of tasks you and your teen will each do is more manageable and successful in the long run. It also teaches your child how to break down big tasks into manageable pieces, which is a valuable skill in itself.

Last updated: March 3rd 2021