How we can tell the child that his/her mother, father, brother or sister are sick so that the does not experience that as a huge stress depends on the age of the child. We should be guided by the need to communicate true information in a way which the child can understand. It is of utmost importance that the child feels protected by the caring approach of a close person. Therefore, the person who talks to the child should be the one who can cope with his/her anxiety in a balanced manner and show an honest and caring stance. The child needs to be informed about the treatment and what consequently may change in everyday activities of the family.
Numerous studies indicate that the presence of parents, preparation of the child to stay in hospital and the child-friendly, age appropriate hospital environment and procedures conducted by the health care staff are important for the child’s good adjustment to hospitalisation and the prevention of emotional difficulties as a reaction to hospitalisation.
Separation from parents is stressful for every child, the intensity of stress depending on its developmental stage, characteristics, temperament and the duration of the treatment, i.e. the length of the separation from parents. The most affected are children under four, since that is the age of the most intense development of attachment. Older school children are somewhat less often affected.
What can disturb the child in the hospital:
– separation from parents
– unknown environment and people/staff
– different routines
– unfamiliar odours, food and sounds
How parents can make their child’s stay in hospital less stressful for the child:
· Talk honestly with your child before hospitalisation about the reasons for that. It is important that s/he understands that both parents and the health care staff will care about him/her and want as quick recovery as possible, and that going to hospital is not punishment for bad behaviour.
· If your child is under six, talk several days before hospitalisation. However, if s/he is older, your can start with the preparations several weeks before.
· You can familiarize the child with the hospital, with what it is like to be there and the examinations according to his/her chronological age, by e.g. buying toys (stethoscopes, thermometers, bandages…) and telling him/her about the medical procedures. You can read books or picture books about a child in the hospital.
· Tell your child that s/he will stay there for a limited period of time and will come home after recovery. Emphasize that you will visit him/her regularly. Engage him/her in preparing things for going to hospital, take favourite toys, and things to have fun.
· Sometimes adults feel the need to “cheat” their young children, e.g. by convincing them that some procedure is not going to be painful, or escape after the visit in hospital under the pretence of going to the shops just for a couple of minutes, or similar, all of these intending to prevent their children from crying. However, it is of utmost importance not to cheat children in order to build their confidence in adults and their feeling of control and safety.
· Parents should not be afraid of their child’s crying, but accept it as a usual reaction in stressful situations. The child should be permitted to express anxiety, fear and sadness.
· Try not to express your own anxiety in front of your child, so s/he does not come to a conclusion that hospital is a dangerous place. Make effort to spend the time with your child in hospital, playing, reading and talking about everyday things.
· Many hospitals and departments have play rooms and “hospital schools” where the child can play with other children and do homework and learn in cases of longer hospitalisation.
· Many hospitals permit parents to stay in hospital with their child. If it is not the case, try to hear your child on the phone and visit him/her every day, which will make your child feel safer and more at peace.
Written by: Vlatka Križan, Psychologist, M. A.