Teaching Kids How to Be Effective Patients

Kids develop attitudes about health care very early on. The sooner you start teaching them how they can play a role in asking questions and understanding what’s happening, the more likely they will grow up to be effective patients.

There are basically four categories of “health education” messages most families try to impart to their kids: basic nutrition (eat your vegetables), dental care (brush and floss your teeth),  infection prevention (wash your hands before you eat) and sex ed (which varies from family to family in facts, timing, tone and style). While that’s a good start, there’s a lot more parents can do from the time their little ones are babies and toddlers through college age to help ensure their kids learn how to take charge of their own health care.

Kids need to learn as much as possible about how their bodies work, whatChildren at the doctor 11.6.15 symptoms mean, and how to make the best possible use of the knowledge healthcare providers offer. Parents can also help their children develop a positive attitude about going to a doctor’s office or clinic. Even at a relatively young age, kids can gain  the necessary confidence and learn how to ask good questions and participate in decision making.

Here are some things you can do to help ensure your kids will be comfortable managing their own health care:

  •  From the time you first start to bring your newborn in for well baby exams, make sure you’re managing your own anxiety about the check-ups and other interactions with health care providers. Kids of every age pick up on adult stress, and it will change how they react to seeing a doctor or nurse. (I can still remember the walkway to my pediatrician’s office and can feel the anxiety I felt when the front office door opened and a little bell went off).
  • Vaccinations are often among an infant and toddler’s first experiences with pain. I have heard parents freak out before, during and after their children have injections. In front of their kids, they say things like, “I am so sorry, but you just have to have this shot,” or “I just can’t watch!” (as if it were a horror show) or “Don’t blame this on me; the doctor says you have to have it.” None of those are good things to say.  Instead, say something to describe the whole experience before you go, geared to the child’s age. Perhaps, “the doctor will be checking your weight, talking to you to see how you’re feeling, and giving you a shot that will keep you healthy.” Smile. Don’t frown. A shot doesn’t really hurt any of us all that much, especially kids, who are used to falling down, cutting their knees and bumping their way around the universe. Don’t give them a reward if they “get through it.” (Kids are smart; they sometimes figure that the more they cry, the bigger the payoff).  Make routine health care routine.
  • As your child gets older, if he or she wants to watch an injection, tell the doctor or nurse that that’s fine. Kids frequently feel more afraid if they are told they can’t see what’s being done (as do adults, actually).  Tell your children that they can choose to watch if they want, and convey that to the staff. Watching what’s being done to you typically makes you feel less out of control.
  • Ask them to think about whether they have any questions they’d like to ask the doctor. You’ll be surprised what they come up with. Some want to know why their stomach occasionally hurts, or why they sometimes get really afraid at the movies, or how the doctor would know if they, like their friend, ever needed surgery. You’ll be teaching them how to seek information from a healthcare provider and how to listen to what they hear.
  • As children mature, involve them as much as you can in their own healthcare decision making. For example, hepatitis B vaccinations were coming out when our kids were young teenagers. I explained the vaccine to them, that it was not required by schools at the time, and how they were unlikely to need it now. But I also told them that as they matured, they might find themselves doing things that would put them more at risk for the disease. They responded very logically. “Let’s have it, ” they said. Don’t give them options if the stakes are so high you couldn’t live with their decisions. But help them learn to evaluate what’s right for them in the face of currently known facts when you can live with the choices they might make.
  • Talk to school-age children as you make healthcare decisions on their behalf. For example, explain how vaccines protect them from diseases that could make them very sick, and how they work: “They help build cells that can fight off sickness without you even knowing its happening.” (Granted, that’s a really basic explanation of the immune system).  If they fall off a bike and the emergency department doctor wants an x-ray, explain why it’s a good idea to know whether the bone is broken or not, and how an x-ray works, giving a good view of what happened inside.
  • Take the magic out of what you do as you help your kids deal with injuries and illness.  Make the healthcare hassles of childhood into “teachable moments.” For example, when our kids were little and they cut their knees, I’d say “We’re washing this off so you won’t get an infection, and then using the band-aid to protect the area. Then tiny cells will be knitting new skin, and soon it will be as good as new!”

About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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