“Where did all the dinosaurs go?”
“What’s the square root of 8,836?”
“How do I know that I’m real and not just a dream of someone else?”
“Why don’t I get to stay up as late as you do?”
“Where do babies come from?”
When kids ask questions, they are seeking to understand the world around them and how they relate to it. Those endless “why???” questions really do serve a purpose in your child’s development.
Kids tend to ask plenty of questions before a new experience or situation.
The unknown can feel threatening and scary. This is especially true when your child is going through a medical condition, needs surgery, or has to stay at the hospital.
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Our son had to have unexpected brain surgery this past year. I was very concerned about how my already anxiety prone son would handle the legitimate fear of surgery.
I recently talked to a Child Life Specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, TX and picked her brain about preparing children for surgery and other medical issues. A big thank you to Ascension and Dell Children’s for sponsoring this post and sharing their wisdom!
What Should You SAY?
First off, you have to tell your kid SOMETHING. (And it should come from you, their parent whom they trust!)
Don’t let your child be completely blindsided by what’s about to happen. Try launching from previous experiences to the new hospital experience. Most kids have, at the very least, gone to the doctor’s office for routine visits.
Connect that experience to what’s about to happen.
How much detail you provide depends on the child’s age and their curiosity. Keep the language basic and relatable.
This is what you could tell a three-year-old when he has to get an MRI under anesthesia.
“Remember when your baby sister was born and you came to visit me? There were kind doctors and nurses there to help take care of us and make us feel good. We’re going to go to a place like that where the doctors and nurses really love to make kids smile and feel safe. They’ll change you into some fun pajamas. Then you’ll breathe some yummy smelling air that makes you sleepy. They’ll take some pictures of your insides, but you won’t even feel it! Then you’ll wake up and I’ll be right there with you.”
A common question kids ask about surgery or hospital stays is “Will it hurt?”
That’s a very tough question because pain is very perception based.
Ask them what they think it will feel like. During the weeks leading up to surgery, ask them to describe different pains they encounter on a pain scale like the Wong Baker Face scale. Some kids think a bumped head is a 4 and others perceive it as a 10.
It can really help children to see that not all pain is extreme. Otherwise, each little twinge can be perceived as a traumatic event.
Encourage them with the fact that the doctors and nurses will help them manage the pain.
Don’t Forget the Siblings
Your child getting the medical treatment isn’t the only one experiencing new and nerve wracking things. Consider what their siblings are going through.
Remember that children are always listening and probably picking up on way more than we give them credit for.
Ask your older child what they have heard. Follow that up with, “What do you think that means?” You want to know where they’re at, so that you don’t give them new worries that they might not have even considered.
A great way to get the conversation started with kids is to have toys in the home that are medical in nature. This PLAYMOBIL Doctor with a Child is super simple and affordable. It’s an excellent tool to help a child voice their concerns and work through their fears, all while playing! (How cute is this play hospital?!?)
Be aware of how your emotions as a worried parent may be affecting all your children.
Some burdens are simply too much for a child to carry. But at the same time, it’s good for your kids to see that it’s ok to have strong emotions. Explain to them that you’re nervous, but that you also trust that this is the best thing to do and the doctors know what they’re doing.
Balance your concerns with encouragement and truth. Give them permission to voice their feelings.
(Don’t stuff all your concerns deep down and just become robotic either! I wrote about my fears and doubts prior to surgery in this post.)
What’s the hospital like?
A great way to ease pre-surgery jitters is to actually visit the hospital and take a tour. Make the unknown, known! Seeing the rooms, meeting the nurses, and visualizing how the big day is going to unfold can be a major help.
During your hospital stay, take advantage of a Child Life Specialist. These angels on earth are incredibly skilled at talking to kids and sometimes literally holding their hand through the process.
At Dell Children’s, Child Life Specialists don’t just help with surgeries and hospital stays. They can help explain a new diagnosis at a child’s level, they can demonstrate and normalize new equipment like an insulin pump, or simply provide distractions and opportunities for play while your child is at the hospital.
We’ve had a Child Life Specialist show our kids pictures of the MRI room before they went in for their procedures. They’ve also distracted our kids with iPads during blood draws or IV removals. They’re experts at getting yucky medicine consumed and providing comfort items. They’re great at answering AND asking questions of kids and can make the entire process much less threatening.