Supporting Families as a Pediatric Psychologist


Connection in a time of vulnerability.

Change creates an opportunity for growth.

As a pediatric psychologist, I frequently meet children and families in times of significant adjustment. There may be a new medical diagnosis, change in mental or physical functioning, or ambiguity about their own or that of their family members’ health and safety. When faced with an uncertain future, I see people react with pain, despair, fear, anger, and exhaustion. Pain creates an opportunity for healing. I step into a room of disconnection and isolation, and my goal is to illuminate strengths and adopt new perspectives as a way forward together.

An important part of my role in these moments of hardship and vulnerability focuses on strengthening relationships. The primary relationships we forge in life are with our own mind and body and with other people. The first task of my job is to acknowledge a person’s pain, whether physiological or psychological (or both), and validate their experience. The unexpected or ambiguous nature of illness can create a sense of mistrust, questioning, and isolation for many individuals. Connections with others may be between family members in improving parent-child communication skills, helping parents understand and respond to changes in their child’s behavior, or helping caregivers work together to achieve a shared family goal. Important connections also exist between the patient, family, and treatment team.

Strengthening Relationships

I support families with building active communication skills within the medical setting to bolster their involvement or understanding of their plan of care. Sometimes children feel anxious when they meet with their doctors, so we work on writing down questions they have. Physicians also often have a window into the stressors their patients face during treatment and refer to me for support with teaching pain coping strategies, stress management skills, and improving independence and daily functioning. Even seemingly basic coping skills, such as deep breathing exercises, hold significant power as it strengthens that connection with their own body. My patients are often surprised to learn that they can control automatic bodily functions tied to the stress response, like heart rate and blood pressure, through proper deep breathing techniques. When we can connect to vulnerability in ourselves, we can identify the problems and solutions in order to build a plan toward reclaiming our independence, life, and future.

Changing Perspectives

My second task is to strengthen hope in order to rebuild a life in the face of a new or changed perspective. I once had a patient point out to me that hope has a cost, which is true. However, in my experience the benefit of working toward a life of value and worth far outweighs the cost of disappointment and anger. This hope offers an invitation for individuals in their healing and allows their care team and family to partner with them to have an active role in their treatment and journey of healing to grow stronger (instead of have treatments done to them). It often takes practice to change the way that we view adversity; learning to recognize how negative thoughts might creep into our perspective is an important initial step. The patients’ experience has disoriented them by challenging fundamental assumptions of control of their own bodies. Once a person has the power to identify how their thoughts impact their emotions, physiological functioning, and relationships with others, they have the ability to create lasting and meaningful change. While illness or injury may initially create a feeling of isolation from others and one’s self, detecting the impact of internal thought processes can help build connections to others, to one’s self, and to the future.  If we understand that from pain can come healing, we can build a new path to the future with connections to others.

Practice What I Preach

Just as I ask the individuals I work with to look for connections to find strength and hope, I do the same. I have the luxury in that my work is never done alone. Professor Brené Brown of the University of Houston, who is known for her research in social work, highlights this pattern in her work on vulnerability, empathy, and connection. In her writings and lectures, she identifies connections with others as a place of healing and strength. While I find my work as a pediatric psychologist, it is important for me to remember my own strength is rooted in vulnerability and need for human connection.

Vulnerability can create an opportunity for connection. I look forward to building a life of connection and am thankful for the opportunity to share that with you.

About the Authors

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