As anyone who works with children knows, communicating with kids is an entirely different skill from communicating with adults. If you work in any area of pediatric medicine, learning to effectively communicate with younger patients and their parents is vital to providing quality care.
The state of healthcare in the US is severely lacking in compassion, and it will take a concerted effort from healthcare providers to bring it back. While many of the same ideas from compassionate healthcare apply to young patients, there are special considerations you can take to help children feel at ease in your care.
Whether you’re a seasoned pediatrician or just starting out in the field, whether you’re a nurse or M.D., it’s always helpful to brush up on these soft skills.
Create A Welcoming Environment
Most clinical settings are very intimidating to young children, so it’s important to take steps to offset the harsh lights, smells, and stressful circumstances surrounding them. If you have control over the way your waiting or exam rooms look, you can decorate them with cute themes to help your younger patients feel more comfortable.
Have a few activity books and crayons around for younger children while they wait. Consider having soft toys on hand for children to hold during their appointments as a grounding tool. Turn down the lights in the exam room if you’re able to.
When you introduce yourself to your patient, make sure to approach and speak to them quietly. Using the patient’s name right away can help you establish rapport. If your patient is sitting below your level, pull up a chair or kneel to match their level.
Walk Them Through The Process
Children generally want to know what’s going to happen in advance, so be sure to set their expectations accordingly. At the beginning of your appointment, you can give them a brief overview of how their session with you will go. In urgent care scenarios where their visit may be less predictable, you can explain what is about to happen at each stage of the process.
This doubles as reassurance for the patient’s parents, who will likely have many questions about their child’s healthcare.
If part of their visit involves painful or uncomfortable procedures, like vaccinations, be sure to warn the patient beforehand. Children do not enjoy unpleasant surprises, and your honesty will allow them to trust you more.
Use Appropriate Terms And Body Language
As mentioned in the last section, children like to understand what’s happening to them. When you communicate to them about their treatment, use vocabulary that’s appropriate for their developmental level.
While you’re speaking to your patient, pay attention to how they respond to the language you use. Some children in the same age group differ in their language development, so one school-aged patient will have a different level of comprehension than another. Generally, teenage patients will prefer being addressed like an adult, and may be more familiar with technical terms. Using familiar examples and analogies can go a long way towards bridging the gap in understanding.
There is no one size fits all method of discussing treatment with pediatric patients, so approach each one as an individual with their own level of comfort and comprehension.
The same considerations apply to the body language you use. Children can be highly sensitive to facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture. If it’s safe to do so, slide down your mask when you speak to your patient so that they can more easily read your expression. Making eye contact, smiling, and sitting or kneeling near your patient’s eye level are all great ways to create a calming presence.
Keep It Positive
One of the most effective ways to ease your patients’ anxiety is to keep the tone of their visit lighthearted and positive.
For younger patients, praising them for their patience, cooperation, and bravery for showing up that day can dramatically improve their visit.
Another way to reduce younger patients’ anxiety is through distractions. Giving them an object to hold or a simple task to complete, like handing you a bandage, can divert their attention from their worries. It also helps them feel like active participants in their appointments, giving them a sense of control.
If your patient is struggling to follow instructions, simply telling them “Don’t do that” is not going to be sufficient. Instead, redirect them towards what they should do instead, or reinforce what they have already done correctly. Remind them of your expectations but remember to keep the tone light.
Engage Children And Their Parents Equally
Your patient’s parents will likely have a lot of questions and input during your session. When discussing treatment, including both the patient and their parents will help keep everyone on the same page and prevent anyone from feeling excluded from the process.
Direct questions about health history to both the child and their parent. Depending on the age of the patient, they may not know their own health history, and will feel more comfortable letting their parent answer for them. Other pediatric patients may be more confident answering these questions by themselves.
When talking about next steps in the patient’s treatment, approach these discussions on a case by case basis. Some conversations are more appropriate to have with the parents out of the patient’s earshot, especially if the parents need to consider multiple options related to their child’s care. Other conversations should be had with the family together. When talking with children and their parents at the same time, remember to pause and help catch the child up to speed if you notice any confusion.
Discussing a child’s health with their parents can sometimes bring up a lot of difficult emotions. Remember, these emotions are usually directed at the situation, not you or the clinic. Positioning yourself as a source of information and a guide to their next steps puts you on the parents’ side against the problem.
We hope you can use these tips to give your pediatric patients a great experience!
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