Hospital stays are rarely fun for anyone. But for a child in the hospital, the experience is unfamiliar at best and frightening at worst. However, parents can make a child’s stay easier by implementing three strategies before and during hospitalization:
- Provide age appropriate details.
- Allow realistic control.
- Use soft language rather than hospital lingo.
Age Appropriate Details
How much to tell kids before going to the hospital depends upon their age and maturity level. Here are some guidelines about what to say and when.
0-2: Parents of infants and toddlers need more preparation than their children do. The hospital staff should prep parents about what to say, where to stand, and how to give comfort. If they don’t provide preparation, parents need to ask. Parents shouldn’t be asked to do anything that causes pain but be ready to rescue and comfort children instead.
3-4: Preschoolers should learn about the hospital trip only a few days beforehand. Provide only necessary details, assuring your child that you will be in the room or close by at all times. Be honest when your child asks if something will hurt. Explain what will hurt, but also explain what the nurses and doctors will do to ease any pain.
5-11: Tell school-aged children about the visit a week or two in advance. Grant the same assurances given to 3-4 year-olds, but prepare the child through play. Ask your pediatric clinic or children’s hospital to provide a kit with an anesthesia mask , gown, cap, surgical mask, and slippers for your child to try on. Many kits include a syringe (minus the needle of course), a stethoscope, tongue depressors and a thermometer. While the child plays with each item, explain how the equipment is used.
12-18: Adolescents should be treated as adults. They should be present for every discussion with the doctors. They should be encouraged to ask questions about prognosis, procedures, pain levels, and recovery time. They should also participate in decision-making.
A child in the hospital will experience less stress if granted realistic control. Parents can cultivate that sense of control by presenting suitable choices. Instead of saying, “Do you want to go to the hospital?” when the child has to go, present a realistic choice. Ask a young child if she wants to pack his blue pajamas or the red ones. Ask an older one what songs he wants to load on his iPod, or what DVDs and video games he plans to take with him. To help your child regain his sense of control in the hospital, give him choices when possible. A child can’t choose whether or not to have an IV or take medicine but can choose a popsicle flavor, television channel, or destination for an afternoon walk.
Soft Language Versus Hospital Lingo
Finally, most kids under 10 are more concrete than abstract thinkers. For that reason, they interpret what is said in the hospital quite literally. Therefore, parents and hospital staff should use soft language (SL) instead of hospital lingo (HL). Here are some examples.
HL: “The doctor will give you some dye.” Child thinks, “To make me die?”
SL: The doctor will put medicine in this tube so she can see your insides more clearly.
HL: “Urine.” Child thinks, “You’re in?”
SL: Use the child’s familiar term.
HL: “I.C.U.” Child thinks, “I see you?”
SL: Explain what each letter means.
Make a Crucial Difference
As a parent, you will be your child’s primary support in the hospital. Yes, the nurses will help your child prepare during pre-op clinic appointments. At the hospital, specially trained child life specialists will also help your youngster adjust. But you live with your child every day, so you know your child better than anyone. You’ll be at your child’s side more than anyone else during the hospital stay. While you can’t take away your child’s pain or uneasiness about being in an unfamiliar place, these three strategies can make a crucial difference when your child is in the hospital.