Whether it is for an overnight stay or a longer admission, preparing a child for a hospitalization can be stressful for families. Parents often are unsure how much to tell their children in advance and may worry about increasing children’s anxiety by providing too much or the wrong kind of information. They may worry about how to keep children as calm and comfortable as possible while they are in the hospital, or how to keep them connected to family, friends and school during that time.
However, the good news is that medical teams, including mental health providers, who work with hospitalized children on a regular basis, have learned some important lessons about preparing children for a hospital stay.
Hospitalization is challenging for children for a lot of reasons: it involves a loss of privacy and independence, disruption of daily routines and some separation from caregivers. Even for the most resilient and high-functioning children, these are significant stressors.
Providing children with information about what to expect in an age-appropriate and specific manner can help with any anxiety they may be experiencing and reduce their distress. This reduced anxiety and distress can, in turn, be associated with positive outcomes for children, such as improved sleep and decreased pain while in the hospital. It can also improve children’s confidence and correct any misconceptions they might have about the hospitalization process.
These five tips can help you prepare your child.
Follow your child’s lead.
Parents often want to know how much to tell their child in advance of an admission. A good rule of thumb is to try to determine how much the child wants and needs to know. It can be useful to encourage a child to ask questions about what they might like to know more about, and to ask them what their preconceptions are about the process.
After providing the information they ask for, you can ask your child to repeat or summarize what they heard to ensure that they understood. Some children can be selective and overly negative in what they take away from information provided, so having them repeat this back to you provides an opportunity to help them create a more balanced view.
Make sure to find a quiet time to talk with your child about these topics and to use a calm tone of voice to help decrease her anxiety.
Focus on their experience.
When doctors are explaining medical conditions and processes to parents, they often focus on the illness itself and what is happening in the body to best explain what is going on and what needs to be done.
When talking to a child, and particularly to a younger child, about what to expect, however, it often helps for parents to focus more on what the child will directly experience. Children can be told what they will see, hear, feel and smell at different points in the hospitalization. Children and parents can learn more by taking a tour of the hospital before the admission, so everyone has a better idea of what to expect and feels better prepared.
Be truthful but nonthreatening.
Most people will have multiple encounters with the medical setting throughout their lifetime, and early experiences shape how we approach these situations into our adulthood. Adults may be tempted to minimize negative aspects of medical experiences to decrease children’s anxiety, but this approach can backfire as it creates mistrust in the long run.
Be truthful with a child while being as nonthreatening as possible. An effective approach is not to assume what a child’s experience will be but to tell them about some of the possibilities for what they might feel.
Bring reminders of home.
Sometimes children who go into the hospital may worry about when and how they will return to their lives afterwards, or they may simply feel homesick. Bringing in pictures and comfort items such as blankets and stuffed animals from home can create a greater sense of normalcy. It can also help if they can use technology to communicate with friends and family and if they can have visitors once they are feeling better.
Children’s ages and developmental levels can have a major impact on how they perceive medical situations such as a hospitalization. For example, young children can sometimes perceive an illness or hospitalization as punishment for something they have done wrong, and it is important to explain that this is not the case.
Parents often ask how long in advance of a hospitalization they should tell their child what is going to happen. In general, it is a good idea to strike a balance between not giving children too much time to worry, while giving them enough time to prepare and process information. A good rule of thumb is to tell a child approximately one day in advance for each year of their age. For example, a seven-year-old could be told a week in advance, while a teenager could be told two weeks ahead of time.
Learn more about how to help your child prepare for the hospital experience.