Written by Peyton Gelley, CCLS, and Sara Hewston, CCLS
Becoming a parent means new experiences, some you feel prepared for, and some catch you by surprise. If your child ever needs to be hospitalized, it’s common to wonder how you should support and talk to your child about what is happening. Starlight’s mission is to deliver happiness to sick and hospitalized children and their families, and we are also here as a source of support for the families we serve. Our on-staff Certified Child Life Specialists have put together a few tips for speaking to your child about hospitalization.
Prepare yourself. Acknowledge this is a stressful time for you as a parent and take the time you need to prepare your own emotions for this experience. Ask the doctors and nurses questions to help educate yourself, pack the necessities you will need (phone charger, books, etc.), and give yourself space and grace to feel the emotions you may have about your child’s need for medical care.
Be honest with your child. You can help prepare your child by being upfront about what to expect during a procedure and explaining their condition or illness. Keep explanations short and simple and remember to use age-appropriate language. And, if they ask anything that you don’t know, let them know you will work to find an answer. You can also empower your child to speak with the care team directly.
Encourage emotional expression. It is normal for children to experience a range of emotions before, during, and after hospitalization. It is important to allow children to express what they are feeling, whether it be sadness, nervousness, or even excitement. Behavioral changes are normal and to be expected, and crying is a healthy coping mechanism.
Provide opportunities for play and distraction. Play has many benefits for children. Play can help children process new information by exploring concepts in a non-threatening way and can also serve as a distraction when a child needs a break from a stressful situation. Of course, play is also fun – even though your child is going through something, they are still a kid!
Ask to speak with a child life specialist. The role of Certified Child Life Specialists in the hospital is to reduce anxiety and stress for pediatric patients and families while also providing distraction and developmentally appropriate play opportunities. Depending on your child’s needs, child life specialists can provide preparation services, procedural support, and fun activities to help your child and family cope with this experience. Child life specialists are on staff at most hospitals in the US and their services are available free of charge to patients.
Don’t forget it is okay to ask for help and to lean on your support system. To the extent possible, take care of yourself during this experience so you have the energy and strength to care for your child. Remember that you are not alone, and Starlight is here to support you during this challenging time.