Raising kids who can talk with their doctors

Some skills are best learned in childhood, like playing a musical instrument or speaking another language. Sure, you can learn these things later in life, but you’ll have to work harder and you may never play music or converse with the ease of someone who learned young.

The same is true about learning how to talk openly with your doctor.  Kids develop their habits and attitudes about health care with every visit to the pediatrician’s office. If we start them off participating at their doctor’s visits in age-appropriate ways, chances are good that they’ll grow up to be adults who are comfortable asking questions and being involved in their health care — a key aspect to health literacy. But if we leave them to learn these things on their own, they may become adults who talk to their doctors with the nervous “accent” of the late learner.

I have one of those nervous accents and I didn’t want to pass it on. To raise kids who feel at home talking with their care providers, I found some fresh lessons in an old place: My childhood memories.

Lesson 1: Take time to prepare your kids for what will really happen at the doctor’s office. No surprise, but all the parenting lessons learned from my childhood are of the how-not-to-parent sort.  In the memory behind lesson 1, I’m a sick 5-year-old sitting in the doctor’s waiting room with my mom. It’s filled with bawling kids. The whole lot of us is wondering whether we’re going to get shots and the anxiety is unbearable.  I’m holding myself together, but all that crying makes my stomach go wobbly. I don’t know it then, but I’m going to associate that feeling with the doctor’s office for a long, long time to come.

Lesson 2: Give age-appropriate information to your kids without talking down to them. They probably know more than you realize, and they won’t trust you if they think you’re watering down the facts or “lying.” The memory: I’m in the hospital because I have bronchial pneumonia.  A nice nurse pushes a kid-size wheel chair to my bed and cheerfully announces, “You’re going to get your picture taken!” My heart beats excitedly in my congested little chest. I’ll have a souvenir snapshot from my hospital adventure. When I get back to kindergarten, this picture is going to make me a show-and-tell hit.

In the “picture-taking room,” the nurse tells me to hop out of chair. This feels all wrong because the chair is what makes the picture special. I’m upset but I’ve learned that it’s not my place to say anything. Instead, I cheer myself up remembering that the picture will show me in a hospital johnny. At least that’s something.

When the nurse asks me to press my chest against a cold plate, I wise up. There’s not going to be a snapshot. This is a boring x-ray. I know because I’ve seen it in cartoons. I feel deflated as I inhale a big breath and stand very still. But inside, one last bubble of hope floats to the surface: This can’t be an x-ray because there’s no reason such a nice nurse would lie to me. With that thought, I flash my best picture-taking smile just as the x-ray beams strike.

Of course, there’s no picture, and I’ve lost a little trust in nurses.

Lesson 3. Encourage your kids to ask questions. Kids need to be taught to be informed patients who feel comfortable engaging in a dialog with their providers. Sadly, I don’t have a single childhood memory where I wasn’t encouraged to play a passive role.  But with more enlightened coaching, my son’s interpretation of the patient role shows what can happen if we consciously teach our kids how to communicate with their providers.

By the time he was in first grade, my son always had questions for his doctor, and he asked without prompting. “When will I start losing my baby teeth?”  “What do you think about kids having pierced ears?” (The teeth fell out. The pierced ears never happened.)

By age 8, he booted me out of the exam room. Exiled to the waiting room, I was sad giving up this maternal role so soon. But after the exam, the doctor always invited me back to review everything they had discussed. There was rarely anything for me to add. My kid knew how to cover the bases.

I was a little envious of the relaxed communication this child had with his doctor, but then, he had a big advantage over me. He had an early start.

How are you preparing your kids to partner with their providers?

Sherry Reisner is a health education writer and video producer. 

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