Being in the hospital can be scary—especially if you're a kid! If you have a child who’s hospitalized for any reason—from common illnesses to life-threatening diseases—your actions have a huge impact on the experience of everyone involved. Learn what and what not to do while guiding your kid through this difficult time. Here are the best ways to help your child cope:
Tour the hospital beforehand.
Many child life teams offer tours to help acclimate kids to the hospital, either for an extended stay or for procedures and surgeries. If your child knows exactly what to expect before she's there, you've eliminated her fear of the unknown.
Choose your words carefully.
The right language can go a long way in minimizing a patient’s fears and anxieties. The child life team at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City states, “Anxiety is heightened by the use of words like yucky, hurt, burn, sting. Try saying things like, ‘This medicine may have a taste that is different for you.’ For injections or blood draws, reassure your child, ‘You will feel the doctor pressing on your arm as the medicine goes in/blood comes out, and when they are finished, you will feel better.’”
Don't make promises you can't keep.
Using lies to create a smooth experience is always a bad idea. For example, never tell your child this is the very last shot or IV unless you’re 100 percent certain. If you tell her things are going to happen and they don’t, you will lose her trust. Instead say, “They are going to try and place this IV in the best vein they can find. They will try to get it on the first try and if they can't, we will take a short break before they try again.”
Give choices when you can.
Don't ask your child if she wants to take her medicine. Of course she doesn’t! Instead, give her a choice of taking the medicine with a spoon, syringe or cup. You can involve your child in her treatment this way throughout her stay and make her an informed participant.
Ask questions and take notes.
As events unfold you may realize that you have many unanswered questions. Always ask! Talbot urges, “Have a paper and pen with you at all times. You're likely to not be at your best, and forgetting is easy. You're not asking questions because you're doubting or challenging them, you're trying to understand and make good decisions.”
Avoid scary situations.
There is a difference between what parents and kids perceive, so filter what your child sees as much as you can. This means that you should avoid wandering to the intensive care unit or the emergency department, for example. Also, be aware of what questions you ask medical staff while your child is in earshot.
Cooperate with medical staff.
Don’t be disagreeable or confrontational with medical personnel. This is not helpful to your child. You may have found overly general or anecdotal information about your child’s condition on your own, but that’s not enough to understand all of the issues. Each child is different, which means each course of treatment is different.
Bring fun to the hospital.
“Go ahead and give your kids what they're asking for if you can,” says Phyllis Talbot, director of the Foundation for Children with Atypical HUS and a parent of a child who has required extensive hospitalization for a rare disease. “They can paint in bed and eat popsicles for novelty and to pass time. It's not rude to ask. Nurses are busy, but child life people are there just for that.”
Make the hospital seem like home.
Bring in favorite stuffed animals or pillows, and let your child bring them wherever she goes. Decorate the room. Eat dinner together as a family. Have family game night. Keep your child's schedule as normal as possible. Let your child be a child, even in the hospital.
It isn't easy, but if you can compose yourself, stay calm and be confident, you may be able to greatly reduce your child's anxiety. Hugging, holding, singing and telling stories can help children cope more effectively. Remember, you're the expert when it comes to comforting your child.
Go home and get your own rest.
Parents often want to stay with a sick child 24 hours a day, turning down help from other loved ones. For extended stays, though, this just isn’t practical. “If people offer to help, let them,” Talbot says. “People tried to bring me food and I'd ask them to wait until we were home when I'd really need it. You can order in to hospitals usually and let folks bring you takeout if you need it. If you can trade off, do it. Don't get sleep deprived.”
There's no perfect way to handle the hospital, even when you're all grown up. But if you keep these tips in mind, you're going to have a real leg up in the process.