How to Deal With Difficult Patients as a New Nurse

Last Updated on February 27, 2024

A new nurse in blue scrubs caring for and dealing with a difficult patient during one of her nursing shifts. The difficult patient, who is wearing a pink shirt, is crying and holding onto a tissue.

We can’t live without nurses. The work you do changes, uplifts, and even saves lives. We know there are days when you will feel this immense gratitude, joy, and fulfillment for what you do. However, it might be easy to forget this during more difficult nursing shifts. For new nurses and seasoned healthcare professionals alike, learning how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse is an ongoing experience.

As you navigate how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse, be patient. With the right mindset and strategies, you can learn from and navigate these situations with these tips for success!

Tips for New Nurses: How Can You Prepare for the Good and Not-So-Good Days?

You finally did it — you became a nurse! Whether you’re looking for a nursing job or are in your first days, weeks, or months, it’s important to prepare for how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse. To help, here are a few tips for new nurses in preparing for all types of patients and situations: 

Tips for New Nurses #1: Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Difficult situations can bring out the worst or the best in everyone. It all depends on our level of self-awareness. By identifying your strengths and weaknesses, you can create a toolkit to guide you in how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse. 

For example, you might be a great conversationalist! Use this to your advantage. Listen to your patients, so they feel heard, distract them from the pain with meaningful conversations, or invite them to talk through the situation.

On the other hand, your weakness might be your tendency to easily feel stressed or pressured. If you start to feel this way, create a backup plan: Find a way to ground yourself, take a deep breath, and regain control of the situation. 

Tips for New Nurses #2: Identify Your Resources and Protocol

Your facility could have protocols or resources with tips for new nurses or guides on how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse. One of the best tips for new nurses is to seek, study, and understand these resources. 

In addition, get to know your staff and leaders at the facility. When you encounter challenging situations during nursing shifts, they can help you confidently manage it. 

Helpful Tip: Get advice and resources straight to your inbox each month with our Clinician Connections Newsletter!

Do’s and Don’ts: How to Deal with Difficult Patients as a Nurse

Wondering how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse? We’re here to help with tips for new nurses and experienced nurses alike. From practicing empathy and self-care to escalating situations and utilizing resources, there are “do’s and don’ts” for finding the best resolution during difficult nursing shifts:

Don’t:

Take it Personally.

It’s almost never actually about you as a nurse — and it’s never about you as a person. Your patient is likely stressed, sick, or in pain. Before reacting, try to separate yourself from the situation as much as possible. Approach it like a compassionate, independent third-party observer, and seek to understand their perspective. By doing so, you can continue serving your patients without letting it affect you.

Get Defensive.

It’s okay to be frustrated. But taking it out on your patient will only worsen the situation. Take a deep breath, and remember: You don’t have to take it personally. 

Refrain from angry or defensive language with difficult patients or coworkers. Be mindful not only of the words you say but of the message your body language is sending. Stay calm, caring, and in control. 

Hesitate to Report Abusive Behavior.

It’s one thing to take a deep breath and avoid getting defensive when a patient is upset. But you never deserve to be abused or bullied by your patients. 

Know the signs of an abusive patient. Set your boundaries, and let them know they can’t treat you a certain way. Address their behavior directly and calmly: Let them know they aren’t allowed to curse at you, yell at you, or disrespect you. If they continue this behavior after you’ve asked them to stop, report the situation. Follow your facility’s protocol for how to deal with difficult patients as a nurse and know when to call for help. 

Do:

Practice Empathy & Patience.

Remember: Your patient is likely in a challenging situation. They might not feel seen and are frustrated that they aren’t getting the answers they need. As a result, they might be taking it out on you. Acknowledge their problem, validate their emotions, and never belittle their experience. 

Listen to their perspective before you speak. Sometimes they just need to vent! Take a moment to see the situation from their perspective. Make them feel like a person, not just a patient. Get to know them. When looking for how to deal with difficult patients as a new nurse, the better you understand the patient, the better you can serve them.

Look to Solve the Root Problem.

Nursing requires mindfulness. You must be observant, looking for signs of difficulty before a situation escalates. Pay attention to what triggers a patient, and be proactive in serving them. Look for the root of the problem: How might their conditions, pain, medication, or side effects influence their behavior?

Sometimes, the root of the problem may be about them. But sometimes, it’s about you. We’re all going through our own struggles. While we try our best to leave them at home, it’s not always easy. Check your own biases and perspective to see what you can do to resolve the problem. 

Make Self-Care a Priority.

Practice self-care when you’re on and off the clock. Find a release outside of work to manage stress, find joy, and create work-life balance. Try journaling, exercising, and spending time with those you love. This can help you feel refreshed and prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally during your nursing shifts. 

During nursing shifts, find a way to press a “reset button.” This might be taking deep breaths, repeating positive self-affirmations, or stretching during a break. 

Nursing Job Resources & Tips for New Nurses

Above all, we want you to enjoy and thrive in your career as a nurse. To help, we’ve created our monthly Clinician Connections Newsletter. Sign up for nursing career advancement tips, healthcare industry news and trends, and more — direct to your inbox! 

Looking for your next nursing career adventure? Check out our available nursing jobs near you!

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