Determining a child’s best interests

Reaching any decision concerning a child’s care must be based on what is in the best interests of the child. Assessment and determination of the child's best interests must be centred on the individual child and include consideration of the child’s health needs, their own views, safety, protection, care and overall well-being.  

Many aspects should be given due weight to assess and determine a child’s best interests. However, there is no fixed recipe for every situation. Respect for the best interests of the child and, indeed, respect for children’s participation requires a balance between what professionals (ideally all professionals working in a multidisciplinary team with an integrated approach to care) and parents consider to be the best for the child, given the illness or health problem, available treatments, effects and so on; and the child’s views on what is ‘best’ for them. Exploring children’s preferences, family culture (including participation culture), past experiences and other factors will help professionals support and facilitate the best possible decision for the child. Consideration must also be given to the children’s right to an open future, meaning that preference should be given, when possible, to options which least restrict their future choices.

 The notions of consent, assent and dissent

For certain treatments or interventions, through protocols specified by law, professionals will need to obtain the formal agreement of parents or of the child him/herself. 

According to the Oviedo Convention, the term “consent” is used when the formal agreement is given by the person concerned by treatment or act, whereas the term “authorisation” refers to the formal agreement given by the parents/legal representatives or body provided by law. 
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), informed consent “relates to the formally expressed (usually written) agreement or permission for any health intervention, such as vaccination, effective surgery, choosing or terminating a treatment.  ” 

As mentioned in section II.b., in national legislations, children’s right to informed consent to treatment can be based on age criteria. Additionally, another concept has emerged, that of children’s competencies. The notion of children’s competency was discussed in a case brought to court in the UK in 1986, where the court’s ruling stated that “whether or not a child is capable of giving the necessary consent will depend on the child’s maturity and understanding and the nature of the consent required. The child must be capable of making a reasonable assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the treatment proposed, so the consent, if given, can be properly and fairly described as true consent.”   The so-called Gillick competency grew in importance and is increasingly recognised as a determining factor for giving children the right to consent to treatment. Assessing competency is left to the health care professionals and there is no universally agreed-upon method to do so. However, guidance will usually include assessing children’s ability to understand their situation, to weigh the different options available to them and to understand the consequences of each.

The emergence of methods and practices to assess competency have been intended to increase child inclusion, participation and rights in decision-making. This places a duty on health professionals to ensure that children are given appropriate information in a way that is understandable to them in order to facilitate their competence. It also requires that health professionals recognise that some children may require information in different ways in order to achieve the same level of understanding and competence.

 Managing disagreements and conflicts

Inevitably, situations will arise when there is a difference of opinion or disagreement. This may typically be between children and their parents, or children and health professionals, or both. It is important to support and manage disagreements with care and according to rights-based principles, so as to enable the best decisions to be made, to protect the ongoing relationships that are often vital to children’s continuing health care, and to enable all parties to move forward beyond the current situation.

The role of health professionals to protect, facilitate and advocate for each child’s right to participate remains unchanged in any circumstance. However, that does not imply that health professionals should agree with or take sides in any disagreement, it is about ensuring that the child is supported to express their opinion, and to ensure that this opinion is considered properly and with due weight in accordance with their rights. 

Each situation brings its own challenges for health professionals to try to navigate in order to support each child to achieve this right to the greatest extent; whilst enabling the important supportive relationships between the child, parents, and health professionals to remain intact.

Situations of disagreement may test the willingness and skills of health professionals to promote children’s right to participate, who may also worry about damaging relationships with those in disagreement. But the protection of this right is a central duty of health professionals and the principles for meaningful participation referred to in section IIc can help.

Similarly, whilst health professionals have a duty to support and enable children’s rights to participation, they should not be expected to go beyond the laws of their own country. Therefore, it is important for health professionals to know the legal parameters in their country.  
Episodes where there may be different views, or where children may express disagreement with a proposed action, range across a wide spectrum of focus and severity. Scenarios where there may be different views and disagreement occur in all areas of health care. 


Scenarios where there may be different views and disagreement occur in all areas of health care. 

Children can also, according to national legislation, provide their assent or express their dissent. The terms assent and dissent generally describe when children give their agreement or disagreement to a treatment, in situations where they do not yet have a legal right to give their consent. 

If children are considered capable of assent, their assent should be sought in addition to parental authorisation. 

In many European countries, written authorisation of parents in addition to the child’s own assent is required. 

In order to ensure that children can exercise their right to consent or assent, hospitals and other health services should put in place different measures, including:

  • Adopting a hospital or health service consent policy, reflecting national legislation
  • Ensuring that health professionals are aware of this policy;
  • Promoting capacity building of professionals to ensure they have the knowledge and competencies to engage and involve children in the decision-making process in a meaningful way and that they ask for their consent to treatment whenever it is required;
  • Engaging with children regularly to assess existing policies and practices, as a way to improve these and also children’s experiences of care. 

Cultural differences may lead to misunderstandings. Where appropriate a translator and/or a cultural mediator should be available during the process of information and consent/assent and in the planning of the research. This person should be familiar with medical terminology, experienced in the language, social habits, culture, traditions, religion, and particular ethnic differences. This person may need to be available throughout the medical intervention and/or clinical trial, e.g. to facilitate exchanges, adverse events reporting. 

Taking into account the national legal framework, seeking agreement should put in balance the emerging capacity of an adolescent for independent decision-making with the need for continued special protection as provided by the parents/legally designated representative in compliance with national laws. The specific aspects of disclosure to parents of information concerning adolescents should be made clear to the adolescent concerned.

For younger or non-verbal children who are not able to raise or express verbal objections, any signs of resistance or protest should be identified and discussed with the parents to assess and recognise whether the behaviour is merely an expression of an acceptable burden or can be considered a concern on intervention continuation. It should also be recognised that for many children, the people best placed to understand or interpret non-verbal indications will be the parents. 

In all circumstances, and regardless of the outcome or direction of a decision, the conclusions of any decisions made should be carefully and kindly explained to the child.

Disagreements may arise in situations where no procedure as such is involved, such as in areas of information-giving

For example, a child may wish to take part in a health survey or needs assessment, and the parents may disagree. In such circumstances, any reasons for parental reluctance should be explored and where possible, any unfounded fears met with reassurance where possible (for example about how information is used or how data is stored). However, when assessing ‘best interests’, health professionals also need to remain objective and open to the possibility that in some circumstances (for example, violence in the home), parents may seek to block their child from disclosing  concerns and  needs; in which case the child’s ‘best interests’ may lie in advocating internally for a way to enable this child to participate, assuming this is possible within the legal framework of the country. 

In primary health care, immunisation can also be a controversial issue within some families.

It is not uncommon for children or adolescents to want a vaccination and the parent be reluctant, for example for COVID-19 or for HPV. This can be a reflection of parent’s own concerns and sometimes be the result of misunderstanding or misinformation. 

Providing accurate and clear information about the purpose of the intervention is important and can be reassuring and helpful, ensuring that this is objective and not directive. Similarly, explaining to parents about the rights that their child has and why these are important can be helpful, as parents are sometimes not aware of these or may be sceptical. 

Sometimes, moral, religious or cultural beliefs contribute to conflict around medical decisions. Such concerns should be identified and addressed in a respectful manner as early as possible and discussions should be truthful and transparent, always assuming that the primary focus of decision-making remains the child patient’s best interests. Getting the support and mediation of a trusted religious or community leader where available, can be helpful. 

In situations requiring urgent decisions or actions.

Such as procedures to insert an intravenous cannula to give medicines to treat a serious infection or take blood for an important test, it is not uncommon for children to initially refuse or not to want this, particularly being young.

In such circumstances, the conclusion may be non-negotiable and that it is in the child’s best interests to have the treatment. However, this should be explained kindly and carefully to the child concerned, and the child concerned should still be given choices that enable some sense of control and influence on other elements of the care provided, such as sitting position, which arm/hand is used, etc. It is also important to choose the least intrusive treatments possible and to seek alternatives that would be acceptable to the child.

There are some situations where the physical holding of a child who resists a procedure may be required to provide health care or to prevent greater harm to the child.

These typically occur with young children requiring urgent care, as described in the paragraphs above, and sometimes in complex mental health care settings. Situations like these often create ethical conflicts for health professionals and challenge the application of children’s rights. Physical holding should only occur when there is serious risk to the child’s health if the intervention is not performed, if proactive and preventive strategies have been exhausted. The legal guardians would as a main rule need to approve of the action. The action must be justified and proportionate to the health risk one is seeking to mitigate, and there are legal requirements for this that will vary between member states. All efforts should in any case be made to reduce the level and intensity of this situation and the degree of force should be confined to only what is necessary to hold the child for the shortest amount of time whilst minimising injury to all involved.  Decisions to use any form of restrictive physical intervention must be based on the assessment that no other method is available and that its use will cause less harm than not intervening. Even if the necessity has been explained before the intervention, it should always be followed by a discussion where the professional explains why this has been necessary and the child should be given an opportunity to debrief, including emotionally. 

Differing views may also arise in situations relating to sexual and reproductive issues

For example if an adolescent seeks advice or health care in relation to concerns about a sexually transmitted disease and does not wish to tell their parents. The child's right to confidentiality and access to counselling is important and should be respected, and also affects future trusted use of health services. In parallel, health professionals also have a duty to assess the circumstances to consider if the child is in an abusive situation and needs protection, or if the child's mental and physical wellbeing is at risk. These and other factors need to be balanced by health professionals in determining the 'best interests' of the child and whether parents should be informed.

There are some situations where the focus of disagreements has particularly serious implications

For example, disagreements between children and parents or health professionals about whether to continue active treatment or interventions when there is little hope of recovery (maybe in the case of continuing treatment for cancer, after previous treatments have failed). 
In such cases proposed intervention should be delayed while an attempt at resolution is made. Such situations are always very emotive and health professionals should be compassionate but objective in supporting every effort to understand and respect differences of opinion between the children and their parents/legally designated representative. Objections from children, capable of forming an opinion, should be advocated for and respected; and the opinion of legal representatives should be taken into account in interpreting the wishes of children.

Enabling open communication is often key to resolving issues. However, sometimes serious disagreements over what are the children’s best interests remain among parents, children and health care professionals, even after a collaborative decision-making process. It is part of the health professional’s role to mediate and help to restore positive relationships following this. 

  • Children, parents/legal representatives and health care professionals should be helped to clearly identify the values contributing to conflict and discuss the goals of the proposed treatment/research ; 
  • Early discussion around the expectations, limitations and uncertainties of treatment options and outcomes may help establish mutually agreeable treatment/research plans;
  • Cases should be discussed within multidisciplinary teams ;
  • Further discussions and/or referral for a second, independent medical opinion, should be promoted;
  • Consulting with and mediation support from a spiritual care leader, social worker, relevant peers, patient relations expert, bioethicist or a bioethics committee, or with institutional or personal legal counsel ; 
  • n very serious or complicated situations (when the child’s life is at risk or where a severe permanent injury can occur) a court can be asked to decide whether it is right to procede with a particular treatment.