Helping Children Cope

Hospitalization can be an overwhelming, sometimes frightening experience for both children and families.

Parents and family members know their children best. You know how to comfort your child when he or she is scared and how to make him or her feel safe in an unfamiliar setting. That makes you the best person to help your child before, during and after hospitalization. Working with healthcare providers and preparing yourself, your child and other family members and friends can help make the hospital experience a more positive one for all.

Here are some tips to make hospitalization easier for your child and for you.

  • Understand your own feelings - Knowing how you feel and exploring your concerns can help both you and your child. Talk about how you feel with a family member, a friend, your child's healthcare provider or someone you trust. Worry, helplessness, disappointment, anger or even guilt are all typical feelings.
  • Gather information - Knowing why your child needs to be in the hospital and what may happen can help you feel more in control and more comfortable. Ask questions. Make notes and checklists. Find out about support and resources available to you within the hospital. Talk with your child's nurse, doctor or the child life specialist about pain management techniques and how you can help your child cope with any discomfort he or she may feel.
  • Prepare your child - Children wonder and worry about what is going to happen to them. Offer your child honest, but sensitive, information that they can understand. Letting your child know why he or she needs to be in the hospital, what may happen in the hospital and when he or she may be coming home are all important aspects of preparation. Let your child know what she will see, hear, smell, feel and be expected to do. Reassure your child that he or she is not being punished for something they did wrong.
  • Understand your child's feelings - It is important to talk with your child honestly about his or her feelings and understanding of hospitalization. Listen to his concerns, fears and fantasies. Remind him or her that it is okay to be scared or cry and that you will be there to help. Please be advised that there may be some changes in your child's usual behavior in the hospital. These may include more crying, withdrawal, clinging, anger or aggression. Offer them alternative ways to cope with their feelings of stress. Some things to try might be playing with clay or writing down their feelings. Realize that what may work one time may not work another time.
  • Supporting your child - It is not unusual for children to act younger than their age due to the stress of hospitalization. Young children may lose skills (such as walking or drinking from a cup), while older children may behave as if they were much younger (such as wetting the bed or having temper tantrums). You can support your child in many ways while he or she is in the hospital. Babies learn through seeing, hearing and touching. Mobiles, music boxes or other bright toys can facilitate that learning process. Older babies and young children fear separation from familiar people. Rooming with your child can help decrease some of that fear. If you need to leave the room, reassure the child that you will be back and when. Older children and teens are concerned with losing privacy, independence and/or control of their emotions and body functions. They also fear losing contact with siblings and peers. This age group copes better when given the opportunity to be a part of their own care (and decisions related to their care). It also helps to allow them to keep in touch with friends and classmates. Advocate for their privacy and the need to feel in control without making them feel "like a baby." Give honest and sensitive answers to their questions.
  • Communicating with your child - Because children are very literal in their thinking, it is recommended you use language that does not sound threatening when explaining medical procedures. For example, use the word "injection" instead of the word "shot;" use "medicine" instead of "dye;" use "incision" or "opening" instead of "hole;" and use "bed with wheels" rather than "stretcher." Using positive language can also decrease your child's anxiety. Rather than saying words like "burn," "sting," "hurt" or "taste or smell bad," you may want to say, "This may feel warm, sore or tight," or "This may taste or smell different than anything you've ever tasted before."
  • Dealing with siblings - Remember, you can't do everything or be everywhere at once. Siblings and peers have different feelings and concerns related to your child's hospitalization. They may be angry because of new things they have to do or new routines due to the hospitalized child's healthcare needs, even if it is only temporary. They may even feel a little jealous of the attention and the gifts the child in the hospital is receiving. Listen to and validate sibling's feelings. You might want to ask a friend to stay with your child at the hospital so you can spend some time with your other children.
  • Going home - Before you leave the hospital, be sure that you, your child and your family are informed and comfortable with any new medications, treatments or procedures that you may have to do at home. Be sure to get written directions and ask any questions that you or your child may have. After hospitalization, talk with your child about his or her feelings and reactions to having been hospitalized. Think about your own feelings and talk about those feelings with your significant other, family members or trusted friends. Realize that if you and/or your child are having any issues after discharge from the hospital, you may contact your child's healthcare provider to ask for assistance.

These tips have been put together to help you, your child and your family cope with the potentially stressful situation of hospitalization. Although we understand that being in the hospital can be a difficult experience, it can also be a time of growing and learning for your entire family.

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