By: Peggy Wheaton
Coordinator, Child Life Services
Horizon Health Network
It is rare to escape childhood without some type of medical encounter. Whether it is a trip to the dentist, a broken bone, minor surgery, immunizations or routine blood work; how we prepare our children for these life events is crucial. Any health care encounter has the potential to create anxiety for both child and parent. However, these experiences can also be positive for children if they know what to expect. Children who are aware of what they will see and do are generally less anxious than children who have no information.
It is normal for children to have fears related to their health. Try not to minimize or ignore these. As parents and guardians we naturally want to protect our children from painful, unpleasant things, so we sometimes hide the truth and cover up our own anxiety with cheeriness. Honesty is the only policy. Your child must be able to rely on what you say. Answer questions and listen to your child’s concerns. If you don’t have the information, reassure your child that you will find out. Facts are often less frightening than the child’s exaggerated imagination.
Regardless of age, most children want to know these things”: What will happen to them? Will it hurt? and that you will be there to support them. Consider explanations that involve the five senses: what will your child see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.
Timing is everything:
- A general rule of thumb is that younger children ( less than 4 years of age) benefit from preparation closer to the event ( a few hours to one day prior to the procedure); while older children (ages 4-12) do better if the preparation is done well in advance ( 5-7 days prior to event).
Use Words that Matter:
- Using words that are simple and non-threatening when speaking with your child is helpful to reduce anxiety. Telling your child every detail of the surgery/health care experience can create more worries.
- Use play to rehearse with your child. Use a play doctor’s kit and other medical/hospital type things you may have at home e.g. Band-Aids, syringes, rubber gloves, paper masks etc.
- Help your child choose a special toy or security object such as a stuff toy or blanket to bring with him/her
- Practise distraction or coping strategies to help your child cope with the difficult moments such as singing a favourite song, counting, telling a story or breathing together. Gaynard L, &Wolfer J et al, (1998)
Read to your Child:
- Children’s books about health care experiences are a great way to explore common feelings and fears related to health care procedures e.g. Franklin Goes to Hospital, Good Bye Tonsils etc. Check out your local library for these resources.
Li, H.C.W., Lopez, V., & Lee, T.L.I. (2007). Psychoeducational preparation of children for surgery: The importance of parental involvement. Patient Education and Counseling, 65(1), 34-41 [2a]
Brewer, S., Gleditsch, S.L., Syblik, D., Tietjens, M.E., & Vacik, H.W. (2006). Pediatric anxiety: Child life intervention in day surgery. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 21(1), 13-22 [3a]
Gaynard L, Wolfer J, Goldberger J, Thompson R, Redburn L, Laidley L. Psychosocial Care of
Children in Hospitals: A Clinical Practice Manual From the ACCH Child Life Research Project.
Rockville, MD: Child Life Council; 1998.Some of the above has been adapted from the ACLP evidence based practice statement on preparation http://www.childlife.org as well as from the Canadian Child Life Institute (http://www.upedia.ca/).