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HIV and Teens Transition into Adulthood

The teen years bring a variety of physical, mental and emotional changes that can be both exhilarating and challenging. For you, an HIV+ teen, the transition into adulthood is even more challenging because you have to live and cope daily with a chronic illness. Life may even seem overwhelming at times. Learning about teen development, HIV, and how these changes affect your feelings and behavior can help to make things a little easier.

Physical Changes

A teen's body grows at a faster rate of speed than any time since infancy. During a "growth spurt," a boy can add 4 inches of height and a girl 3 inches of height. Body weight increases, too, although boys tend to add more muscle, while girls add more fat. During puberty, hormonal changes in boys can cause a deeper voice, facial hair, and hair under the arms and in the pubic area. Girls begin to develop breasts, get fuller hips, and grow underarm and pubic hair. Even the brain is growing. HIV can be lurking silently.



While these changes might make you feel self-conscious, especially if you grow at a faster or slower rate than your peers, you may have additional physical issues. If you are taking HIV drugs, you may have some nasty side effects, such as nausea, dizziness, muscle pain, or fatigue. If these medications are taken for a long time, you may develop a body change called lipodystrophy. This is a weight gain in the central part of your body, such as your stomach, chest, shoulders, and waist, but at the same time, a fat loss in the face, arms, legs, hips, and buttocks. No doubt these body changes might make you feel self-conscious about your appearance.


While increased growth makes it important for all teens to eat a healthy diet, you must make a special effort to protect your immune system by eating a balanced diet, getting enough rest, and exercising regularly.

Mental Development

In addition to physical growth, you will further develop your mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, as well as emotion development and decision-making. And HIV and some HIV drugs might impair some of these mental processes. This may cause some problems when it comes to taking care of your health.
EvenHIV adults find that taking HIV drugs daily can be annoying, hard to remember and perhaps difficult to hide from others. Medication can be a constant reminder of your disease. In addition, you may be embarrassed about regular school absences on account of frequent doctor visits. All of this might make you feel more self-consciousness and even more sensitive to what others may think of you.
Although it's normal to feel sensitive, over-sensitivity may be a sign of a problem with your self-esteem. Teens with poor self-esteem have trouble distinguishing between a failed experience and failure as a person. For example, if you get a bad grade on a test, you most likely realize that you blew the test but you can do better next time by studying harder. But if your self esteem is shaky, you will see the bad grade as a reflection of your failure as a person.
Teens with low self esteem are more vulnerable to peer-pressure to use drugs and alcohol to compensate for this. Those with self esteem problems may also experience problems with depression or even suicidal thoughts. If this is true for you, talk to a trusted adult or your doctor. There are medications available that can help with depression.

Social and Emotional Growth

Teens deal with several social and emotional issues. One of the most important issues is establishing your identity. Figuring out "Who am I?" and "How do I fit in the world?" are normal questions. It is a struggle for most teens to feel accepted and create a circle of friends, and developing and maintaining close relationships with peers is made all the more difficult when peer pressure is involved.
Teens are notorious for risk-taking and experimenting with drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, and their sexuality, and are especially susceptible to peer-pressure. But these kinds of risk-taking behaviors, without a doubt, will worsen your health quickly and could impair your judgment. If you are drunk or high, you are more likely to participate in unprotected sex and permanently hurt your body, as well as expose your partner to HIV. And in some states not disclosing your HIV status before having sex is illegal and you can go to jail (even if you practiced safe sex!)
Even though being HIV+ may make you feel isolated at times, it's important to have open, honest, and supportive friendships. Many HIV+ teens are afraid to disclose their HIV status to peers for fear of rejection, or even discrimination. In fact, this can be one of the hardest decisions that an HIV+ teen must make. While disclosure relieves the burden of keeping such an important secret and may give you the love and support you need from friends, it can also be a scary prospect.
Some things to consider before disclosure are: Why do I want to tell this person about my HIV status? Will he or she keep my confidence? And what will happen if the relationship is changed by my disclosure?
You can have your doctor, a parent, a trusted relative, an HIV peer educator, or even a friend help you to disclose your status, if you need additional support. You need someone to talk to!
For you, the decision whether to be sexually active is especially important, as it is crucial to protect yourself and your partner from disease. Unprotected sex may spread your HIV, but also expose you to other sexually transmitted diseases (STD) such as Herpes, Hepatitis B or C, or genital warts. And STDs can further complicate or sabotage your HIV disease treatments. There is also the risk of getting infected with another strain of HIV (called "super-infection"), which can cause additional damage to your immune system.
Another major development during your teen years is establishing independence. This may be especially hard for you because having HIV can make you more emotional, and negatively affect your self-esteem and self-image. You may also be physically dependent on others, and that allows little privacy.
Lastly, high school is all about preparing yourself for adulthood and your future. And your future may seem scary. Questions like "Should I go to college?", "Will I find love and marry?", "Can I get a job?", "Will I be able to have children?", and "Will I ever have a normal life?" may arise. With the new treatments available, HIV+ people can live very healthy, normal, and long lives.

Support for the HIV+ Teen
Where can you find support? Trusted family members, friends, teachers, counselors, clergy, and healthcare providers can be a valuable support system. Many communities have local HIV support groups, too-try looking in our local resources directory for some places near you. In a support group, you can talk openly, securely, and confidentially with others who have similar situations and emotions.
There are also some important things that your parents, or guardians, can do to help you:

Answer questions about sex honestly and accurately.

Encourage and model a healthy lifestyle, such as good eating habits and exercise.

Respect your privacy.

Allow you to handle as much of your care as possible, such as setting medical appointments and taking medications. Allow you to be a part of medical decisions.

Help you set both short term and long term goals that are realistic and achievable.

And of course, lots of love, compassion and patience!
If your parents or guardians are not already doing these things, it is probably because they are learning how to live well with your HIV just like you. Show them this article to help them.

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