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Telling Your Child About the Hospital

Being in the hospital can be difficult for a child. Here are a few recommendations on how to help your child adjust to his/her hospital stay. Remember our Child Life specialists, as well as other staff, are here to help.
  • Always be honest with your child. Give him/her accurate information and use simple words that will be easily understood.
  • Praise your child frequently during the hospitalization. He/she needs the support.
  • Be positive and encouraging to your child, but also listen and respect his/her feelings.
  • Young children may be frightened by what they hear in the hospital, so avoid discussions about their health in front of them.
  • Always tell your child when you are leaving and when you will return. If you think your child will be upset, ask the Child Life or nursing staff for assistance.
  • Take care of yourself. Your child needs you to stay well and healthy. Try to make time for a walk, a cup of coffee and a chance to rest your eyes.
  • Tell us about your child. You know him/her best, and the more you can share, the better the care we can provide.
  • If your child will be having a test or procedure, knowing what will happen can help. Ask a staff member for guidance in presenting the information to your child. Prepare young children by explaining in simple language what they will see, hear and feel. Older children can understand more detail. Child Life specialists can be particularly helpful with how best to communicate with your child.
  • Distractions can also help your child cope with medical interventions.

Infants (0–1 year old)

Infants need consistency and comforting.

  • Hold your baby or swaddle him/her in a favorite blanket.
  • Speak in a soft/soothing voice.
  • Play music or sing.
  • Offer a pacifier, rattle, etc.
  • Provide visual stimulation.

Toddlers (1–3 years old)

Common fears for toddlers can include separation from their parents or primary caregivers, loss of physical and emotional control, pain and needles. They are magical thinkers and believe in the world of make-believe. This imagination can be used to help them, but it can also scare them, so they need to know concretely what will happen to them.
  • Use simple words your child will understand to explain what will happen.
  • Reassure your child you will be with him/her whenever possible.
  • Use play medical kits with added items such as Band-Aids and cotton balls to encourage familiarization and mastery.

During procedures:

  • Play favorite music, sing or recite nursery rhymes.
  • Read pop-up and sound books.
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Watch a favorite DVD.
  • Have something familiar close at hand like a favorite blanket, stuffed animal or toy.

Preschoolers (3–5 years old)

Preschoolers tend to misunderstand words they hear, so misconceptions are common. They have a limited ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. They commonly fear the unknown, loss of body function, pain and needles. They may think their illness/injury is their fault and hospitalization is a punishment.
  • Help your child to understand he/she did not do anything to cause the hospitalization, illness or surgery.
  • Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings. Give your child the opportunity to ask questions; explain in simple terms what is going to happen.
  • Give your child choices whenever possible to allow him/her some control.
  • Use play medical kits to allow for mastery and expression of feelings.

During procedures:

  • Give him/her a job to do during the procedure (for example, holding still).
  • Blow bubbles and pinwheels.
  • Read pop-up and sound books.
  • Play music and sing or watch a favorite DVD.
  • Count.
  • Talk about favorite things such as pets or places you go.
  • Ask Child Life staff for some distraction toys.

School-Age (6–11 years old)

School-age children want and need to know about their illness. They can understand simple explanations of procedures help them to cope and cooperate. This understanding of events and procedures is key to helping them with their fear. They like to have as much control of their environment as possible and want to know how they can take care of themselves.
  • Let your child know you will answer any of his/her questions.
  • Talk about your child’s fears and questions openly and honestly.
  • Encourage opportunities for mastery through activities using medical supplies. Make sculptures from casting materials, use syringes in water/paint play, make collages with medical materials (tape, tongue depressors, etc.).
  • Use real medical supplies and dolls to play out medical experiences.

During procedures:

  • Use headphones with music.
  • Imagine a special place and talk about it.
  • Use stress balls, magic wands, spinning lights.
  • Breathe with slow, deep breaths.
  • Use Challenger I Spy books/Game Boys.

Adolescents (12+ years old)

Adolescents are mainly concerned with peer acceptance and body image. Common concerns include body mutilation, loss of body function, loss of control, loss of independence and invasion of privacy. Adolescents need to maintain contact with their friends, and they need to be involved in decision making during hospitalization.
  • Include your adolescent in any discussion and decisions about his/her health care and encourage questions.
  • Anticipate your adolescent may be too embarrassed to admit he or she doesn’t understand, so explain everything clearly.
  • Allow and support your adolescent’s privacy.
Distraction techniques include:
  • Use headphones with music.
  • Imagine a special place or favorite experience and talk about it.
  • Breathe with slow, deep breaths and relax muscles.
  • Watch a favorite DVD.
  • Keep in touch with friends and keep up with school work with a computer, laptop or tablet.
  • Use stress balls, Challenger I Spy books and games.
  • Journaling and creating artwork/music to help express feelings about experiences.
Siblings
When a brother or sister is admitted to the hospital, siblings may become anxious and stressed. To feel more involved, siblings can draw pictures or make decorations for the hospital room, make a sign to let everyone know their brother’s/sister’s likes and dislikes, bring photos from home or make a video. The best way to alleviate fears about the hospitalization is to bring the healthy siblings to the hospital for a visit. Try to correct any misconceptions about their brother’s/sister’s illness or about hospital procedures. Take the time to answer their questions honestly, but don’t assume they are ready for additional information. They will ask if they want to know more.