Communication and Physical Assessment of the Child

Communication and Physical Assessment of the Child

Marilyn J. Hockenberry


Guidelines for Communication and Interviewing

The most widely used method of communicating with parents on a professional basis is the interview process. Unlike social conversation, interviewing is a specific form of goal-directed communication. As nurses converse with children and adults, they focus on individuals to determine the kind of persons they are, their usual mode of handling problems, whether they need help, and the ways they react to counseling. Developing interviewing skills requires time and practice, but following some guiding principles can facilitate this process. An organized approach is most effective when using interviewing skills in patient teaching.

Establishing a Setting for Communication

Appropriate Introduction

Introduce yourself and ask the name of each family member who is present. Address parents or other adults by their appropriate titles, such as “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” unless they specify a preferred name. Record the preferred name on the medical record. Using formal address or their preferred names, rather than using first names or “mother” or “father,” conveys respect and regard for the parents or other caregivers (Seidel, Ball, Dains, and others, 2011).

At the beginning of the visit, include children in the interaction by asking them their names, ages, and other information. Nurses often direct all questions to adults even when children are old enough to speak for themselves. This only terminates one extremely valuable source of information: the patient. When including the child, follow the general rules for communicating with children given in the Nursing Care Guidelines box on p. 91.

Assurance of Privacy and Confidentiality

The place where the nurse conducts the interview is almost as important as the interview itself. The physical environment should allow for as much privacy as possible with distractions, such as interruptions, noise, or other visible activity, kept to a minimum. At times, it is necessary to turn off a television, radio, or cellular telephone. The environment should also have some play provision for young children to keep them occupied during the parent–nurse interview (Fig. 6-1). Parents who are constantly interrupted by their children are unable to concentrate fully and tend to give brief answers to finish the interview as quickly as possible.

Confidentiality is another essential component of the initial phase of the interview. Because the interview is usually shared with other members of the health team care or the teacher (in the case of students), be certain to inform the family of the limits regarding confidentiality. If confidentiality is a concern in a particular situation, such as when talking to a parent suspected of child abuse or a teenager contemplating suicide, deal with this directly and inform the person that in such instances, confidentiality cannot be ensured. However, the nurse judiciously protects information of a confidential nature.

Computer Privacy and Applications in Nursing

The use of computer technology to store and retrieve health information has become widespread. The health care community is increasingly concerned about the privacy and security of this health information. Any person accessing confidential health information is charged with managing safeguards for disclosure because violations might incur civil damages.

Many institutions use computer and information applications in nursing (nursing informatics), such as electronic medical records, to record care and access information. Two important health care applications are record transmission, including facsimile (fax), electronic mail (e-mail), and telemedicine. The telemedicine application is capable of two-way video conferencing, transmission of radiographs, and clinical consultation between remote sites and centralized resources.*

Telephone Triage and Counseling

Nurses are increasingly responsible for assessing children’s symptoms and applying clinical judgment for further medical care (triage) via telephone report. Most often, health problems are assessed and prioritized according to urgency, and nurses provide treatment via telephone services. A well-designed telephone triage program is essential for safe, prompt, and consistent-quality health care (Beaulieu and Humphreys, 2008; Marklund, Ström, Månsson, and others, 2007). Telephone triage is more than “just a phone call” because a child’s life is a high price to pay for poorly managed or incompetent telephone assessment skills. Typically, guidelines for telephone triage include asking screening questions; determining when to immediately refer to emergency medical services (dial 911); and determining when to refer to same-day appointments, appointments in 24 to 72 hours, appointments in 4 days or more, or home care (Box 6-1). Successful outcomes are based on the consistency and accuracy of the information provided. Telephone triage care management has increased access to high-quality health care services and empowered parents to participate in their children’s medical care. Consequently, patient satisfaction has significantly improved. Unnecessary emergency department and clinic visits have decreased, saving medical costs and time (with less absence from work) for families in need of health care.

Communicating with Families

Communicating with Parents

Although the parent and the child are separate and distinct individuals, the nurse’s relationship with the child is frequently mediated by the parent, particularly with younger children. For the most part, nurses acquire information about the child by direct observation or through communication with the parents. Usually it can be assumed that because of the close contact with the child, the parent gives reliable information. Assessing the child requires input from the child (verbal and nonverbal), information from the parent, and the nurse’s own observations of the child and interpretation of the relationship between the child and the parent. When children are old enough to be active participants in their own health maintenance, the parent becomes a collaborator in health care.

Encouraging the Parents to Talk

Interviewing parents not only offers the opportunity to determine the child’s health and developmental status but also offers information about factors that influence the child’s life. Whatever the parent sees as a problem should be a concern of the nurse. These problems are not always easy to identify. Nurses need to be alert for clues and signals by which a parent communicates worries and anxieties. Careful phrasing with broad, open-ended questions such as “What is Jimmy eating now?” provides more information than several single-answer questions, such as “Is Jimmy eating what the rest of the family eats?”

Sometimes the parent will take the lead without prompting. At other times, it may be necessary to direct another question on the basis of an observation, such as “Connie seems unhappy today” or “How do you feel when David cries?” If the parent appears to be tired or distraught, consider asking, “What do you do to relax?” or “What help do you have with the children?” A comment such as “You handle the baby very well. What kind of experience have you had with babies?” to new parents who appear comfortable with their first child gives positive reinforcement and provides an opening for questions they might have on the infant’s care. Often all that is required to keep parents talking is a nod or saying “yes” or “uh-huh.”

Listening and Cultural Awareness

Listening is the most important component of effective communication. When the purpose of listening is to understand the person being interviewed, it is an active process that requires concentration and attention to all aspects of the conversation—verbal, nonverbal, and abstract. Major blocks to listening are environmental distraction and premature judgment.

Although it is necessary to make some preliminary judgments, listen with as much objectivity as possible by clarifying meanings and attempting to see the situation from the parent’s point of view. Effective interviewers consciously control their reactions, responses, and the techniques they use (see Cultural Considerations box).

Careful listening relies on the use of clues, verbal leads, or signals from the interviewee to move along the interview. Frequent references to an area of concern, repetition of certain key words, or a special emphasis on something or someone serve as cues to the interviewer for the direction of inquiry. Concerns and anxieties are often mentioned in a casual, offhand manner. Even though they are casual, they are important and deserve careful scrutiny to identify problem areas. For example, a parent who is concerned about a child’s habit of bedwetting may casually mention that the child’s bed was “wet this morning.”

Using Silence

Silence as a response is often one of the most difficult interviewing techniques to learn. The interviewer requires a sense of confidence and comfort to allow the interviewee space in which to think without interruptions. Silence permits the interviewee to sort out thoughts and feelings and search for responses to questions. Silence can also be a cue for the interviewer to go more slowly, reexamine the approach, and not push too hard (Seidel, Ball, Dains, and others, 2011).

Sometimes it is necessary to break the silence and reopen communication. Do this in a way that encourages the person to continue talking about what is considered important. Breaking a silence by introducing a new topic or by prolonged talking essentially terminates the interviewee’s opportunity to use the silence. Suggestions for breaking the silence include statements such as: “Is there anything else you wish to say?” “I see you find it difficult to continue; how may I help?” or “I don’t know what this silence means. Perhaps there is something you would like to put into words but find difficult to say.”

Providing Anticipatory Guidance

The ideal way to handle a situation is to deal with it before it becomes a problem. The best preventive measure is anticipatory guidance. Traditionally, anticipatory guidance focused on providing families information on normal growth and development and nurturing childrearing practices. For example, one of the most significant areas in pediatrics is injury prevention. Beginning prenatally, parents need specific instructions on home safety. Because of the child’s maturing developmental skills, parents must implement home safety changes early to minimize risks to the child.

Unprepared parents can be disturbed by many normal developmental changes, such as a toddler’s diminished appetite, negativism, altered sleeping patterns, and anxiety toward strangers. The chapters on health promotion provide nurses with information for counseling parents. However, anticipatory guidance should extend beyond giving general information during brief visits to empowering families to use the information as a means of building competence in their parenting abilities (Magar, Dabova-Missova, and Gjerdingen, 2006). To achieve this level of anticipatory guidance, the nurse should:

Avoiding Blocks to Communication

A number of blocks to communication can adversely affect the quality of the helping relationship. The interviewer introduces many of these blocks, such as giving unrestricted advice or forming prejudged conclusions. Another type of block occurs primarily with the interviewees and concerns information overload. When individuals receive too much information or information that is overwhelming, they often demonstrate signs of increasing anxiety or decreasing attention. Such signals should alert the interviewer to give less information or to clarify what has been said. Box 6-2 lists some of the more common blocks to communication, including signs of information overload.

The nurse can correct communication blocks by careful analysis of the interview process. One of the best methods for improving interviewing skills is audiotape or videotape feedback. With supervision and guidance, the interviewer can recognize the blocks and consciously avoid them.

Communicating with Families Through an Interpreter

Sometimes communication is impossible because two people speak different languages. In this case, it is necessary to obtain information through a third party, the interpreter. When using an interpreter, the nurse follows the same interviewing guidelines. Specific guidelines for using an adult interpreter are given in the Nursing Care Guidelines box.

image Nursing Care Guidelines

Using an Interpreter

• Explain to interpreter the reason for the interview and the type of questions that will be asked.

• Clarify whether a detailed or brief answer is required and whether the translated response can be general or literal.

• Introduce the interpreter to family and allow some time before the interview for them to become acquainted.

• Communicate directly with family members when asking questions to reinforce interest in them and to observe nonverbal expressions but do not ignore interpreter.

• Pose questions to elicit only one answer at a time, such as “Do you have pain?” rather than “Do you have any pain, tiredness, or loss of appetite?”

• Refrain from interrupting family members and the interpreter while they are conversing.

• Avoid commenting to the interpreter about family members because they may understand some English.

• Be aware that some medical words, such as allergy, may have no similar word in another language; avoid medical jargon whenever possible.

• Be aware that cultural differences may exist regarding views on sex, marriage, or pregnancy.

• Allow time after the interview for the interpreter to share something that he or she thought could not be said earlier; ask about the interpreter’s impression of nonverbal clues to communication and family members’ reliability or ease in revealing information.

• Arrange for the family to speak with the same interpreter on subsequent visits whenever possible.

Communicating with families through an interpreter requires sensitivity to cultural, legal, and ethical considerations (see Cultural Considerations box). For example, in some cultures, using a child as an interpreter is considered an insult to an adult because children are expected to show respect by not questioning their elders. In some cultures, class differences between the interpreter and the family may cause the family to feel intimidated and less inclined to offer information. Therefore, it is important to choose the translator carefully and provide time for the interpreter and family to establish rapport.

Legal and ethical concerns may also arise. For example, in obtaining informed consent through an interpreter, the nurse should fully inform the family of all aspects of the particular procedure to which they are consenting. Issues of confidentiality may arise when family members related to another patient are asked to interpret for the family, thus revealing sensitive information that may be shared with other families on the unit. With increased sensitivity toward patient rights and confidentiality, many institutions now require consent forms produced in the patient’s primary language.

Communicating with Children

Although the greatest amount of verbal communication is usually carried out with the parent, do not exclude the child during the interview. Pay attention to infants and younger children through play or by occasionally directing questions or remarks to them. Include older children as active participants.

In communication with children of all ages, the nonverbal components of the communication process convey the most significant messages. It is difficult to disguise feelings, attitudes, and anxiety when relating to children. They are alert to their surroundings and attach meaning to every gesture and move that is made; this is particularly true of very young children.

Active attempts to make friends with children before they have had an opportunity to evaluate an unfamiliar person tend to increase their anxiety. Continue to talk to the child and parent but go about activities that do not involve the child directly, thus allowing the child to observe from a safe position. If the child has a special toy or doll, “talk” to the doll first. Ask simple questions, such as “Does your teddy bear have a name?” to ease the child into conversation. Other guidelines for communicating with children are in the Nursing Care Guidelines box. Specific guidelines for preparing children for procedures, a common nursing function, are provided in Chapter 22.

Communication Related to Development of Thought Processes

The normal development of language and thought offers a frame of reference for communicating with children. Thought processes progress from sensorimotor to perceptual to concrete and finally to abstract, formal operations. An understanding of the typical characteristics of these stages provides the nurse with a framework to facilitate social communication (Box 6-3).


Because they are unable to use words, infants primarily use and understand nonverbal communication. Infants communicate their needs and feelings through nonverbal behaviors and vocalizations that can be interpreted by someone who is around them for a sufficient time. Infants smile and coo when content and cry when distressed. Crying is provoked by unpleasant stimuli from inside or outside, such as hunger, pain, body restraint, or loneliness. Adults interpret this to mean that an infant needs something and consequently try to alleviate the discomfort and reduce tension. Crying (or the desire to cry) persists as a part of everyone’s communication repertoire.

Infants respond to adults’ nonverbal behaviors. They become quiet when they are cuddled, patted, or receive other forms of gentle physical contact. They receive comfort from the sound of a voice even though they do not understand the words that are spoken. Until infants reach the age at which they experience stranger anxiety, they readily respond to any firm, gentle handling and quiet, calm speech. Loud, harsh sounds and sudden movements are frightening.

Early Childhood

Children younger than 5 years of age are egocentric. They see things only in relation to themselves and from their point of view. Therefore, focus communication on them. Tell them what they can do or how they will feel. Experiences of others are of no interest to them. It is futile to use another child’s experience in an attempt to gain the cooperation of small children. Allow them to touch and examine articles they will come in contact with. A stethoscope bell will feel cold; palpating a neck might tickle. Although they have not yet acquired sufficient language skills to express their feelings and wants, toddlers can effectively use their hands to communicate ideas without words. They push an unwanted object away, pull another person to show them something, point, and cover the mouth that is saying something they do not wish to hear.

Everything is direct and concrete to small children. They are unable to work with abstractions and interpret words literally. Analogies escape them because they are unable to separate fact from fantasy. For example, they attach literal meaning to such common phrases as “two-faced,” “sticky fingers,” and “coughing your head off.” Children who are told they will get “a little stick in the arm” may not be able to envision an injection (Fig. 6-3). Therefore, avoid using a phrase that might be misinterpreted by a small child (see Table 22-1).

School-Age Years

Younger school-age children rely less on what they see and more on what they know when faced with new problems. They want explanations and reasons for everything but require no verification beyond that. They are interested in the functional aspect of all procedures, objects, and activities. They want to know why an object exists, why it is used, how it works, and the intent and purpose of its user. They need to know what is going to take place and why it is being done to them specifically. For example, to explain a procedure such as taking blood pressure (BP), show the child how squeezing the bulb pushes air into the cuff and makes the “silver” in the tube go up. Let the child operate the bulb. An explanation for the procedure might be as simple as, “I want to see how far the silver goes up when the cuff squeezes your arm.” Consequently, the child becomes an enthusiastic participant.

School-age children have a heightened concern about body integrity. Because of the special importance they place on their body, they are sensitive to anything that constitutes a threat or suggestion of injury to it. This concern extends to their possessions, so they may appear to overreact to loss or threatened loss of treasured objects. Helping children voice their concerns enables the nurse to provide reassurance and to implement activities that reduce their anxiety. For example, if a shy child dislikes being the center of attention, ignore that particular child by talking and relating to other children in the family or group. When children feel more comfortable, they will usually interject personal ideas, feelings, and interpretations of events.


As children move into adolescence, they fluctuate between child and adult thinking and behavior. They are riding a current that is moving them rapidly toward a maturity that may be beyond their coping ability. Therefore, when tensions rise, they may seek the security of the more familiar and comfortable expectations of childhood. Anticipating these shifts in identity allows the nurse to adjust the course of interaction to meet the needs of the moment. No single approach can be relied on consistently, and encountering cooperation, hostility, anger, bravado, and a variety of other behaviors and attitudes is common. It is as much a mistake to regard an adolescent as an adult with an adult’s wisdom and control as it is to assume that a teenager has the concerns and expectations of a child.

image Interviewing an adolescent presents some special issues. The first may be whether to talk with the adolescent alone or with the adolescent and parents together. Of course, if the parent is not there, the only question is whether to suggest to the teenager that the parents be interviewed at another time. If the parents and teenager are together, talking with the adolescent first has the advantage of immediately identifying with the young person, thus fostering the interpersonal relationship. However, talking with the parents initially may provide insight into the family relationship. In either case, give both parties an opportunity to be included in the interview. If time is limited, such as during history taking, clarify this at the onset to avoid appearing to “take sides” by talking more with one person than with the other.

image Case Study—Communicating with Adolescents

Confidentiality is of great importance when interviewing adolescents. Explain to parents and teenagers the limits of confidentiality, specifically that young persons’ disclosures will not be shared unless they indicate a need for intervention, as in the case of suicidal behavior.

Another dilemma in interviewing adolescents is that two views of a problem frequently exist—the teenager’s and the parents’. Clarification of the problem is a major task. However, providing both parties an opportunity to discuss their perceptions in an open and unbiased atmosphere can, by itself, be therapeutic. Demonstrating positive communication skills can help families communicate more effectively (see Nursing Care Guidelines box).

Communication Techniques

Nurses use a variety of verbal techniques to encourage communication. Some of these techniques are useful to pose questions or explore concerns in a less threatening manner. Others can be presented as word games, which are often well received by children. However, for many children and adults, talking about feelings is difficult, and verbal communication may be more stressful than supportive. In such instances, use several nonverbal techniques to encourage communication. Box 6-4 describes both verbal and nonverbal techniques.

Box 6-4   Creative Communication Techniques with Children

Verbal Techniques

Facilitative Response

Listen carefully and reflect back to patients the feelings and content of their statements.

Responses are empathic and nonjudgmental and legitimize the person’s feelings.

Formula for facilitative responses: “You feel _________ because _________.”

Jan 16, 2017 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Communication and Physical Assessment of the Child
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