Getting ready for a child’s hospital visit often means rearranging regular activities, such as work and school, for the whole family. Aside from the stress this can cause, you and your family members may experience worry, guilt, sadness, and relief in the weeks and days leading up to the hospital stay. As you prepare your child for the hospital experience, it’s just as important to mentally and physically prepare yourself and your family.
For Parents and Guardians
Knowing that your child will be admitted to the hospital or undergo a procedure may bring on a variety of feelings — anxiety, fear, worry, helplessness, shock, guilt, anger, numbness, relief. Children often sense these feelings. Allowing yourself time to experience and process your own feelings will help you better support your child.
You might find it helpful to learn more about Boston Children’s Hospital, your child’s medical condition, and the treatment. Here are some common questions you may want to ask the hospital staff:
- What should I tell my child about the procedure (or test)?
- What will happen immediately before the procedure?
- How long will the procedure take?
- May I stay with my child during the procedure?
- Where will I wait during the procedure?
- Will I be told how my child is doing during the procedure?
- When will I be able to see my child after the procedure?
- Will my child be in pain?
- How long will my child stay in the hospital?
- How long will it be before my child can go back to school and play?
- Where can I find more information on my child’s condition?
Remember that you know your child best. Be sure to tell your child’s doctors, nurses, and other caregivers about your child’s personality and past experiences with healthcare. For example, if your child is especially afraid of blood tests, we can often find ways to make the experience less upsetting.
Take care of yourself
It’s hard to support your child and family if you don’t take care of yourself physically and emotionally. These strategies may help:
- If possible, take turns with another caregiver in sleeping at the hospital with your child. Make a schedule before your child is admitted.
- Take breaks from your child’s room. For example, take a walk or go for a cup of coffee. Ask a child life specialist if a volunteer could stay with your child while you take a break.
- Talk with friends and family about your worries and concerns.
- Learn deep breathing and relaxation exercises. Programs about this are shown on the hospital’s Education and Relaxation channel (Channel 28).
- Exercise regularly. Stop by the Hale Family Center for Families, or ask your social worker or child life specialist about using the gym near the hospital.
- Ask about a parent coffee hour on your child’s unit; ask about support groups.
- Keep a journal about your hospital experiences.
- Plan to see and spend time with your other children.
- If you and your child’s other parent are not together but are both part of your child’s life, take time to decide who will be with your child at different times during the hospitalization or procedure. Let your child know the plan.
For Brothers and Sisters
Sometimes when one child in a family has healthcare needs, brothers or sisters may experience complex feelings such as sadness, worry, anger, or guilt. You might think this is your fault, but that’s not the case. In fact, it’s normal for brothers and sisters to have conflicting feelings when they have a sibling who is ill or has special healthcare needs. Brothers and sisters may feel:
- Sad. Because they miss you and the sick child.
- Lonely and left out. Because they’re spending more time than usual away from you. They may feel left out if no one tells them what’s happening.
- Worried and afraid. Because they worry about you and are afraid about what is happening to their sick brother or sister. They may believe that everything is changing and won’t be the same again. Sometimes they worry that they’ll get sick too, or that you’ll get sick.
- Guilty. Because they think they caused the illness, or because they did something mean or had mean thoughts. They may worry that the illness is their fault. Or they may feel guilty because they’re healthy and can do things their sick brother or sister can’t.
- Jealous and angry. Because the sick child is receiving a lot of attention.
- Confused. Because they don’t understand what’s happening or what might follow.
Children often don’t know how to talk about these feelings, however. They may express themselves in other ways, such as:
- A change in eating habits (eating more or less than usual)
- Becoming quiet and withdrawn
- Spending more time alone or away from family members
- Trying very hard to please parents or other grown-ups
- Acting out by not following rules, fighting, or even hitting others
- Seeking more affection than usual
- Returning to younger behaviors, such as bed-wetting, baby talk, or thumb-sucking.
- Acting like the sick child or saying that they feel sick
If you sense that your child’s brothers and sisters are struggling to cope with their sibling’s illness, these techniques may help comfort them and improve communication:
- Talk together as a family about what’s happening and why the child is sick. Give simple and honest explanations appropriate to your children’s developmental level.
- Tell brothers and sisters that it’s important to ask questions, and that you’ll try to answer them or get answers from a nurse or doctor.
- Encourage brothers and sisters to talk about their feelings. Let them know that it’s OK to cry, be angry, be happy, and have many different feelings.
- Keep daily routines — such as school attendance, meals, naps, and bedtimes — as normal as possible.
- Give your other children special attention whenever possible.
- If possible, bring brothers and sisters to visit the hospital. Talk with the staff about how to prepare your child for a visit to the hospital. Arrange these visits according to your child’s interest and comfort level. If a visit isn’t possible, arrange phone calls.
- Suggest that brothers and sisters draw pictures or make cards to send to the hospital.
- Seek support from family and friends. Ask us about ways to find support for yourself and your family.