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Coping With Your Child's Hospital Stay

How To Help Your Child Prepare and Cope With Hospitalization

Bringing a child to the hospital and leaving him there can be a very traumatic experience for the parent and the child. "For many parents, hospitalization separation is emotionally draining," says Dr. Adolph Brown, an associate professor of psychology at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. "It is important to arm the child with firm, loving reassurance that you will return."

Preparing Your Child

When possible, it is important to prepare a child for a hospital stay. Preteens can help with the preparations by packing their clothes and personal items prior to admission day.

Research indicates that children who are prepared for hospitalization tend to recuperate faster than those who aren't. Being honest is one of the most important things you can do to prepare your child for his hospital stay. Children feel better when they know what is going on. Without having a general idea of what to expect, their imaginations can run wild!

The Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron in Ohio has provided these tips to help your child prepare for a trip to the hospital:

  • Focus on the purpose: to help get better as soon as possible and return home. Find out if your child has any misconceptions by asking him a few questions.
  • Think about it from your child's point of view: a strange place, odd-looking equipment, unable to go home, cared for by strangers. Discuss with your child what these new experiences may be like.
  • Tell the truth: Some things may hurt. The most common fear is being stuck with a needle. Tell your child it's OK to say "ouch" and cry – even adults cry. Remind your child that the doctors and nurses are there to help the child feel better. It's unpleasant that pain is almost always a part of being sick or injured, but pain may be part of getting better.
  • Pack your child's suitcase together. Bring pajamas, a bathrobe and a favorite stuffed animal or toy labeled with your child's name. Let the child pick out a special outfit to wear home.
  • Start a project together before going to the hospital – a puzzle or a book – and plan to finish it when he returns home.
  • Bring along family photos – something familiar.

Make sure you answer any and all of your child's questions the best way you can. At some hospitals, like Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron, the staff helps prepare children for surgical procedures and other medical experiences by giving them a hands-on familiarization of the medical equipment. This can make it seem less frightening to the child.

An Emotional Time

Being in the hospital can potentially be a very stressful place for children due to many factors. Separation from parents and siblings is difficult, even for older children. Parents need to be aware of their child's feelings of anxiety and try to encourage positive feelings whenever possible. "The parent's attitude will be contagious, just as a negative attitude," says Dr. Brown. "The parents will provide the model for having stable and positive feelings around separation."

Wendy Marsden of Greenfield, Mass. remembers how stressful it was for her and her family when her child was hospitalized for nine days during a life-threatening illness. She encourages parents to stay with their child as much as they can. "Be there," she says. "Being hospitalized is a surreal experience. There's no day or night anymore – you're sick, sleep-deprived and subject to enormous indignities, many of which are painful. I can't stress enough how important it is to be there around the clock for your child. It's 'quantity vs. quality' parenting at the most pure. Just show up, and you've done your job."

Being in the hospital is sometimes scary for children. They often feel disoriented, being away from their social circles, school, routine and home. Add to that the feelings of anxiety over their illness, and it can be very stressful for kids.

Penney Carlton of New York says her daughter hated for her to even leave the room for a second during the first few days of her one-week hospital stay. "As her illness lessened, she made great friends with the nurses," Carlton says. "By the third day she was 'throwing' me out of the room to go home to sleep."

Your Child's Advocate

Marsden felt very strongly about being available for the physicians who were caring for her child in the hospital. "My child had 13 different doctors and over 20 nurses during his nine days of hospitalization," she says. "Absolutely no one knew what his entire situation was besides me. I was the only one with the big picture – what veins we were saving, how he'd done on this treatment the day before, how soon until he needed meds again."

It's important to ask questions of the medical staff if you are unsure of a procedure or anything else related to your child's care, and allow your child the opportunity to be informed as much as he should be. "Pain medication is widely under-prescribed for people who can't advocate for themselves, including children," says Marsden. "I sometimes had to ask four times before they administered morphine."

Marsden tells parents to write down the dosage of pain medication and be sure to ask the nurses in this form. "Namby-pamby complaints like, 'He's in so much pain. Can't we do something?' get dismissed as obnoxious parents," she says. "I learned to say, 'Give him 1 mg of morphine as soon as you can."

Carlton agrees that staying informed and asking a lot of questions is the best way to keep on top of your child's progress. It also helps parents to feel more at ease, which in turn rubs off on your child. "I asked about every little procedure," she says. "I know I drove the staff crazy."

For many children, staying overnight for any length of time in a hospital can be a scary experience. By preparing your child and being open to discussing their fears and concerns, it can be a less stressful experience for everyone. Children trust their parents. Reassure them that they are in the best place possible to get well.

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