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How to Connect with Your Pediatric Patients

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

Most pediatricians and advanced healthcare providers who work with pediatric patients have already developed their own strategies to optimize communication with children and teens. But some additional pointers can always help. 

We recently spoke to three leaders in pediatric medicine who shared their expertise with fellow pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners.

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Build trust by showing respect

Developing trust with your pediatric patients is essential, and the best way to do that is to prioritize showing them respect, said pediatrician Julia Richerson, MD, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) committee on practice and ambulatory medicine. 

“You have to come in with that intention, to show respect in as many ways as you can,” she said. 

Developing trust really is the first step, agreed Rajashree Koppolu, RN, MSN, CPNP, president of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP).

“Simple steps such as having caregivers introduce the provider to the child, involving children in a physical examination by having them listen to their own heart sounds, drawing pictures to help in their understanding, and setting mutual goals and expectations for each visit. It is not only what we love to do, but is what makes our clinical care so meaningful,” Koppolu said. 

Specific strategies to help you connect with young patients

Make your office welcoming. Before you even interact directly with a child, your office can influence their experience. That doesn’t mean toys and games scattered about—those can be germ magnets anyway—but it could mean having rooms painted in soothing colors with fun decorations. “It sets the stage,” said Richerson, who added that she bought some rainbow stickers and a rainbow pin for her jacket to signal to LBGTQ families that she welcomes them. 

Get down on the child’s level. The height differential can put a barrier between you and your pediatric patient. Get down so you can look a child right in the eye. 

Speak directly to the child. It may be tempting to just talk over the child’s head to their parent or guardian, but don’t fall into this trap. “I think it’s a way to show respect,” says Richerson. “It puts them at ease. And they’re more likely to share information with you if they think you are listening to them.” 

Let the kids talk to you. When you ask questions, stop and listen to the child’s responses. “They really should have an important say,” said Joel Warsh, MD, a pediatrician with Integrative Pediatrics and Medicine in Studio City, California. “Parents should obviously have a say, too, but [children] should have a say in the treatment plan whenever it’s reasonable.” 

Don’t make assumptions. While it’s a great idea to ask kids about their interests, don’t make assumptions based on gender stereotypes and activities, said Warsh. Don’t assume that a boy loves football or that a girl loves princesses. “You lose them if you start talking about things that they’re not interested in,” he said. 

Use language that kids can understand. You do need to tailor your language to be appropriate to their age, maturity level and ability to understand. “Adjust what you are saying and how you are saying it, based on the situation,” said Richerson.

Watch for cues. Some children may not want to make eye contact with you. Some may not want to say very much. Watch their body language and adjust accordingly so you don’t make them uncomfortable. “If the kid doesn’t want to respond, then you can turn to the parents, and they can give you a cue,” adds Warsh.  

Give older kids the chance to speak to you alone. Many pediatric providers give older children and teens the chance to speak to them by themselves, in case they want to discuss anything without their parents in the room. “By giving them space to voice any concerns and share their experiences, practitioners continue to build an effective and trusting relationship,” said Kopppolu. The ages for this step can vary, of course, and it might be worth giving parents and guardians a heads-up about your policy a year or two in advance, so they’ll be expecting it, added Richerson. 

When in doubt, just remember that effectively caring for pediatric patients is all about developing a trusting relationship with the child or teen. You may need to use a variety of communication strategies to effectively develop this relationship, said Koppolu.

And it may take time. A child may be very nervous during their first visit with you, but you can use these strategies to hopefully make the next visit a little easier for them. The effort will be worth it. 

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