Tips To Ease The Stress Of A Hospital Visit

Your child needs elective surgery and a date has been scheduled. Unlike emergency surgery, an elective procedure gives you the time to prepare your child (and yourself) psychologically for the surgery. Pediatric hospitals are especially designed, equipped and staffed to care for children and teens both physically and emotionally. Adequate preparation can help your child feel less anxious about the surgery and get through the recovery period faster.
Prep tips
Like parents everywhere, you are probably uncertain about the best ways to prepare your child. The job is not as daunting as you may think. Ohio's Akron Children's Hospital's Child Life staff says the key is in imparting information at your child's level of understanding, correcting misconceptions and dispelling fears.

"Depending on your child's age and developmental level, you need to help her understand the physical problem that requires the surgery and become familiar with the hospital and some of the procedures she will undergo," says Alisa Mills, a child life specialist at Akron Children's Hospital. "Children of all ages cope much better if they have some concrete idea of what is going to happen and why surgery is necessary. But to do that, you need to prepare yourself first, and correct any misconceptions of your own."

The horror stories you heard from grandparents and parents about traumatic parent-child separations and very limited hospital visiting hours belong to days gone by. Hospitals have changed enormously. For example, most surgeries performed on children are now "same-day" procedures that don't require overnight or prolonged stays. Most hospitals allow at least one parent to stay beside the child at all times except in the operating room.

Mills said understanding what scares your child is the first step to easing the discomfort. She says children often share common fears about medical procedures and exams, including:

Separation: Children worry about being alone and away from their parents. The fear of separation is most common in children under age 7, but it may be frightening to older children as well.

Pain: Children may worry that a part of the examination or medical procedure will hurt. They especially fear they may need an injection, particularly children ages 6 through 12.

The doctor: Unfortunately, one of a child's concerns may be the doctor's manner. A child may misinterpret qualities such as speed, efficiency or a detached attitude, and read into them sternness, dislike or rejection.

The unknown: Apprehensive about the unknown, children also worry that their problem may be much worse than their parents are telling them. Some who have simple problems suspect they may need surgery or hospitalization. Some who are ill worry they may die. Mills said how you handle those fears depends on your child's age and developmental level.

Preparing infants
"A lot of people think there is nothing you can do to help prepare your infant for surgery, but there is," says Mills. "Mostly, we try to prepare the parents of infants and help them understand what to expect." She recommends parents desensitize their infant to other people by letting friends and family hold the baby.

Preparing toddlers and pre-schoolers
Toddlers and pre-schoolers have short attention spans, so preparation should be geared toward their developmental level and shouldn't come too far in advance of the surgery. "Toddlers can only look a couple of days into the future," says Mills. "So it is best to wait until one or two days before the surgery to explain."

Mills recommends thinking about it from your child's point of view: a strange place, odd-looking equipment, unusual noises, different smells, sleeping in a new bed, unable to go home, cared for by strangers.

She suggests:

  • Explain the procedure in simple language your child understands and don't take more than five or 10 minutes. Afterward, ask him if he understood. For example, tell a child who is getting his tonsils removed that since his tonsils keep making his throat sick, the doctor says it is OK to take those tonsils out.

  • Stress the benefits of the test or procedure (e.g., "You will feel better afterward"). Tell your child where she is going, what is going to happen and why. For example, you might say, "You are going to the hospital to have surgery on your heart so you will feel better."

  • Use concrete terms when you explain the procedure because younger children take everything literally. For example, if you say, "You won't feel a thing because they will put you to sleep," your child may be afraid that she will go the way of the family dog. Instead, tell the child that she will get special medicine so the surgery will not hurt.

  • Tell the truth: Some things may hurt. Tell your child, "You may feel a small pinch when the doctor gives you your medicine." Give your child permission to say "ouch" or cry -- even adults cry.

  • Pack your child's suitcase together and include a favorite toy or blanket. It's okay for your child to take his favorite toy or blanket into the operating room.

    Preparing a school-age child
    Mills advises active participation by school-age children in preparation for health care procedures and offers the following guidelines:

  • Focus on the purpose: to help your child get better as soon as possible and to return home. Sometimes kids think they're being punished. You can find out if your child has any misconceptions by asking a few questions.

  • Be honest. To the best of your ability, describe how the test or procedure will feel. And give him permission to cry. Explain the procedure in correct medical terminology, explaining terms your child doesn't understand. Use visuals to better illustrate the parts of the body that will be involved. You can get good sources of information from the library or Internet. Stress the benefits of the procedure and anything that the child may find pleasurable afterward, such as feeling well enough to participate in favorite activities.

  • Suggest ways for maintaining control, such as counting, deep breathing and thinking of pleasant thoughts. Include your child in the decision-making process, such as the time of day the procedure will happen, if possible.

    Preparing an adolescent
    Surgery or medical treatment may evoke many fears in adolescents that go well beyond those of younger children. They may fear pain and disfigurement, but also fear losing control.

  • Explain the procedure using correct medical terminology and explain why the procedure or examination is necessary. Use visuals to better illustrate the parts of the body involved in the procedure. The library and Internet are good sources of information. Stress the benefits of the procedure and anything that the child may find pleasurable afterward, such as feeling well enough to participate in favorite activities.

  • Suggest ways for maintaining control, such as counting, deep breathing and thinking of pleasant thoughts.

  • Include your adolescent in the decision-making process, such as the time of day of the procedure. And if your teen doesn't want you present during the procedure, respect her wishes.

  • Encourage your teen to not only ask you questions, but also the doctors and nurses. This will give you an opportunity to correct any misconceptions he has about pain and disfigurement.

  • Many adolescents are worried about waking up in the middle of the procedure. Assure your teen that this won't happen, but that she will wake up when the procedure is done.

  • Find a support group that will help your adolescent meet others who've had similar experiences. Encourage your teen to develop a hobby or special talent, such as art or model airplanes, to help cope during hospitalization or rest at home. PregnancyAndBaby.com
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