Nurses spend a majority of their time caring for patients, but it usually includes interacting with family members too. While having family nearby is important for patient wellbeing whenever possible, it can sometimes make things harder, especially when things get stressful. They may express unhappiness with how their loved one is being treated or even lash out at the care team to vent their feelings. Knowing how to handle distressed family members is a top skill that every nurse should have. These seven best practices can help you stay calm under stress and improve your interactions with patients’ family members.
1. Start off on the right foot
When you enter a new patient’s room, introduce yourself to everyone present and find out what their relationship is to the patient. Then tell the patient and their family members what they can expect, such as who will be helping the patient and how often you (or other clinical staff) will come by to check on them. Make sure they know how to call for help, too. Proactively communicating expectations helps build trust and can address concerns before they become a problem.
2. Communicate and educate
Provide updates on the patient’s care and treatment whenever possible, and ensure everyone understands the patient’s current status. Many family members feel helpless when a loved one is ill, and sharing information in a way they can understand helps give them back some power.
Many family members are well-intentioned, but they may act out in fear or frustration when they’re in an unfamiliar or stressful situation. Their questioning — or even rudeness — may be how they show they care about their loved one. Help them work through their feelings by listening and acknowledging what they are saying. They may not always be right, and you may not be able to resolve their concern, but simply feeling heard can go a long way toward helping someone cope with a difficult situation.
4. Address concerns
Family members are often upset at the circumstances they find themselves in and don’t know where to turn to for help. Sometimes talking about their concerns can help resolve them. However, if you find out someone is upset over something you can’t control, you can help by directing them to where they can learn more. For example, if a family member is upset about their insurance coverage, directing them to a health advocate or the facility’s financial services office may be useful.
5. Be professional
It’s important to keep in mind that family members are most often upset at the situation, not at you. Don’t take anything personally. This can help you stay calm and respond to unkind comments in a professional manner. In tense situations, it may help to take a breath before speaking, especially if you feel irritated yourself. Remaining calm and speaking softly will go a long way in de-escalating the situation.
6. Watch for signs of agitation
If a family member raises their voice, makes demands, or speaks inappropriately, it’s best to address it right away. Letting aggressive behavior continue makes it more difficult to stop later on. Telling the family member what you observe and then asking how you can help solve the issue can sometimes stop the situation from escalating further.
7. Always put safety first
It’s possible that you’ve used all the above tips but still find yourself in a situation that has reached a dangerous level. If you’ve already set boundaries and still feel your safety is threatened, call for help. This could be another nurse, a manager, or security personnel, depending on the situation and your clinic’s protocol. There is no reason put your personal safety at risk.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for working with distressed family members of patients, but employing these strategies early on can help diffuse tension before a situation becomes untenable.