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Psychology consult for children’s skin issues can boost adherence, wellness



– One day each week, Sasha D. Jaquez, PhD, visits with patients in the dermatology clinic at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas who wrestle with some aspect of their skin condition, from noncompliance to a recommended treatment regimen to fear of needles when an injection of medicine is required to keep them well.

Dr. Sasha D. Jaquez, Pediatric psychologist, Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Sasha D. Jaquez

“Our goal is to help promote the health and development of children, adolescents, and families through the use of evidence-based methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy,” said Dr. Jaquez, who is a pediatric psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin. “We do assessment and treatment of behavioral and emotional difficulties related to their skin condition or medical condition. So if they’re depressed but it’s not related to their skin condition, we will likely refer the patient to a community mental health system.”

During 1-hour visits at the dermatology clinic, Dr. Jaquez uses a mixed approach that includes cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing to help patients and family members cope with their problematic behavior or negative thought patterns related to their skin conditions. “We do not have magic wands; we focus on the here and now,” she explained. “We focus on how to move forward in the most efficient way possible by teaching skills, practicing those skills with them in the office, and sending them home to use those skills. I don’t have 100% compliance on this, so if I notice that they’re not doing what I asked of them, we’ll have a conversation about what the barrier is. ‘What is getting in the way?’ I’ll ask. ‘Is this something you’re really wanting, or do you want a magic pill? If you want a magic pill, then our office isn’t where that’s going to come from.’ Sometimes patients aren’t ready to work on feeling better, and that is good for us to know.”

During consultations, she often talks with children and adolescents about how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related. She’ll use phrasing like, “The way that you think about something changes the way that you feel, and it changes the way that you act. We have control over our thoughts and behaviors, so if we think it’s going to be a bad day, it’s going to be a bad day. If we think it’s going to be a good day, then we’re going to find the positive aspects in the day and we might let those bad aspects go away. If I do something different [for my skin condition], then I’m going to feel different.”

She recalled the case of a 3-year-old boy with atopic dermatitis who was referred for excessive scratching. His mom stays at home, while dad works and travels frequently. “The parents had differing views on how to treat his medical condition. Mom wanted to do wet wraps while dad wanted to do bleach baths. Their son was getting no treatment because the parents couldn’t agree on anything. Mom noticed that her son scratches when he wants attention and when he’s angry.”

When Dr. Jaquez met with his parents, she encouraged them to agree on a plan to implement at home so that their son would gain some relief. She also advised them to ignore when their son scratches or when he gets angry. “Give him something else to do besides scratch, because if those hands are busy, he won’t be scratching. Let’s change the way this behavior happens. Let’s give him attention all the time instead of just when he’s scratching. That will work very quickly. And it did.”

She makes it a point to talk with patients and their families about living with the stress of a chronic illness like psoriasis or atopic dermatitis. “Let’s figure out, ‘How do we accept that this is how it is, and that they’re going to have to find their own ‘normal?’ ” she said. “I don’t know how many times someone comes into my office and says, ‘I just want to be normal.’ I like to ask patients, ‘what is your normal?’ These kids might have a lower quality of life than a child without a chronic illness, but we want to make sure that they’re living their lives to the fullest. You want to monitor not only adherence [to medication] but also quality of life. Sleep concerns are big. A lot of our kids might not being going to school, or they’re afraid to go to school because they get picked on because people don’t understand their skin condition.”

Dr. Jaquez acknowledged that not all dermatologists have a psychologist on staff or in their referral network, but all are capable of destigmatizing psychological and mental health issues for their patients. “Psychological comorbidities such as depression and anxiety can be associated with certain skin conditions,” she said. “Let them know that this is stressful stuff. Have discussions early, so if the time comes for a referral they won’t think you’re giving up on them. Don’t be afraid to say you have a psychologist that you want to refer to. Say, ‘I have an added team member I would love for you to meet. She’s our psychologist. She works with patients who are having difficulties.’ ”

Giving patients perceived control of their care could also help improve the behavior of concern. For example, when patients with needle phobia require an injection, ask if they would like to lay down, or sit down for the injection. “Giving them this tiny bit of control is going to help them feel more empowered,” she said.

Dr. Jaquez also recommends that clinicians pay attention to nonverbal cues and steer clear of using scare tactics to change their behavior. “Use positive behavioral strategies and try to avoid punishment. Children don’t want to hear ‘stop’ all the time. Parents are tired of saying it, and kids are tired of hearing it. We focus on praising the things that are going well. I advise parents all the time: ‘Catch them being good.’ ”

Dr. Jaquez reported having no financial disclosures.

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