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Researcher Profile: Dr. Roberta Woodgate

Talking About Their Feels: Communication Strategies for Children and Teens

November 23, 2016 — 

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate how you feel today?

For many of us, it’s a tough question to answer with just a number.

It’s even harder when you’re a child or teen living with a serious illness.

On the other hand, if you could use an avatar or emoticon—a kind of graphic stand-in for your feelings—well, that’s a different story. These types of images are part of the common language of youth and most of them don’t find it hard at all to pick a graphic that lets you know exactly where they’re at.

“It’s easy to say things like, ‘I feel cranky!’” says Dr. Roberta Woodgate, a researcher and professor at the College of Nursing and CIHR Applied Chair in Reproductive, Child and Youth Health Services and Policy Research. Of course, there are many more things you can express this way, and that’s the whole point, says Woodgate. “If we’re going to improve care for this population, we need to involve young people in what’s happening. And that means we need to hear about their experiences in their voices.”

That’s why she’s currently developing a website that gets kids to share their ‘feels.’ It’s just one way—and there are many—that she’s helping young people find a voice and take a role in their own care. Woodgate is engaged in multiple projects that include an interactive web-platform similar to a video game, as well as YouTube videos, photography, and an upcoming dance project.

No matter what method she’s using, one thing remains the same. “It’s important to remember that we’re doing research WITH youth, not ON them.” That means an advisory group made up of teens and adolescents is beside her every step of the way. It’s not just helpful. Woodgate says it’s invaluable. “There was a time when kids wouldn’t have been involved in this way. People said they didn’t have anything to share,” says Woodgate. “But the truth is, we can’t know what their experience is because we haven’t lived it. That’s what makes their input so vital.”

Research is ongoing, but Woodgate says there are already implications for clinical practice. In the case of youth with cancer, she says that using their imaginations can offer significant therapeutic value. “It can help them explore, understand, and manage their physical suffering, as well as they associated anxiety they live with,” she says. In the case of a video game she’s currently developing, she says she’s also seen improvement in communication. “It offers a new way to connect with family members, friends, and other children who are facing serious illnesses.” It’s research like this that Woodgate says gives healthcare professionals a fresh tool to add to their practice. “Symbolic communication offers new possibilities for therapeutic interactions,” she says. “It’s one more way we can enhance care for young patients and their families.”


Roberta Woodgate, RN, PhD

Professor, College of Nursing, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences
CIHR Applied Chair in Reproductive, Child and Youth Health Services and Policy Research

Featured Research:  
Communication strategies for children
and teens experiencing serious illness

Click to view more Research in Nursing profiles.


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