Connecting with Young Patients: Tips for Healthcare Professionals

If you didn’t study pediatrics or you’re in a field that doesn’t often see children, you may not feel totally comfortable dealing with them or really know how to relate to them on the occasional visit, especially if you are not a parent yourself. It can be challenging as kids often require a different approach as they are often nervous or afraid about being “at the doctor” or just around strangers in an unfamiliar setting. Remember that they lack the emotional maturity to easily adapt to a healthcare environment, and it’s important to learn how to best communicate with them and make them feel comfortable to provide the best outcomes.

Connect and Communicate

Before you meet the child, learn their name. Greet them first, before the parent, and address them by name, looking them in the eye if possible. Adding a kind greeting, “It’s so nice to meet you,” will help start getting them comfortable. Smile as you meet them and then often during the visit to convey friendliness, safety, and ease. Introduce yourself, just as you would an adult; this will help them see you as a person. It also helps to squat down or sit on a stool or chair to get down to their level instead of looking down at them as you speak. Talking about their favorite cartoon characters, television shows, or toys can help build rapport by offering a familiar connection. Though it may be a default, do not talk in a singsong or baby talk voice or in any way patronizing or talking down to them. Kids will spot that a block away and usually not respond well.

Age Appropriate

Speak and address your ped patient fitting to their age, and match your communication to their level. With very young patients, making them laugh can be very helpful. Adolescents can feel more comfortable when you find some common ground to discuss, such as sports teams or video games. If you are treating a teen, talk to them as you would an adult. Teens don’t want to be treated like kids. To get them to be receptive, talk to them with respect, as you would an adult.

During the Visit

Be honest with them; don’t try to trick them or tell them that something won’t hurt when it will. This will only cause them to distrust you. Help them feel prepared by explaining what you are going to do and how it will feel. “You might feel a pinch, but it will be over soon.” Acknowledge when something is painful and acknowledge how well they are handling it: “I know this hurts, you are being extremely brave.”

Get them involved, and have them participate in the visit to distract them. Ask them to hold on to something for a minute until you need it, or ask them to “help you out” by moving their arm this way, scooching up on the table, or by holding very still for a moment. Children are often afraid of the unknown, so providing choices can help by making them feel in charge of something, and it also provides a distraction that helps gain their cooperation. Ask them which arm they would like to use for the blood pressure sleeve, or which eye or ear to start with.

Walk them through the visit, explaining what you are going to do using basic, appropriate terminology. Some of this may be more for the parent, but it will help make the patient feel comfortable knowing what to expect and that you are including them.

Engaging the Parent

Though you will need to communicate with the parent, be sure to address both the child and the parent, keeping eye contact with both during the discussion, and always ask your patient if they have any questions. Parents can provide information on how to best communicate with and relax their child and might be able to give you tips. Note that they can be nervous or frustrated themselves, so keep this in mind when dealing with them and stay calm and patient, talking to them separately from the child if necessary so as not to affect the child.

The key to treating kids is establishing rapport and making them feel comfortable. Be conscious of their anxiety level and understand that it takes a different approach for better pediatric patient outcomes.