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Preparing Children for Life…a visit to the hospital

Recently, I was out for a run (we’ll deal with the fact that I run with two herniated discs in a future blog) and I saw a father at a nearby gas station teaching his son how to pump gas. I figured that the boy was about 9 years old.

Brilliant! As I went by, I asked the man if he was indeed teaching his son how to pump gas and he said that he was. I encouraged him by saying that I believe it is so wise to teach children such practical things. He seemed happy for the kudos and said it was all  part of a father-son day out together.

On the rest of the run home, I thought about how important it is to prepare our young people for the inevitable skills and experiences that they will face, sooner or later, in life. This father was giving his son an introduction to something that others may think is dangerous — working with a flammable gas — however, the experience of opening the gas tank, taking that unwieldy pump handle out of its holder and learning how to control the flow of fuel so it doesn’t end up like a bad scene from Zoolander is really important. It’s a small thing, but it builds confidence.

That young man is being prepared for real life.

Inevitably, someone close to a young person is going to be admitted to the hospital, and understanding what it’s like to visit someone in the hospital can be a very important growth experience, as well as a skill for dealing with life, illness, and health.

Sudden, traumatic, and even planned, medical events and hospital stays can cause anxiety and questioning from children and youth of any age. “Why is grandma in the hospital?” “Is Aunt Carol going to die?” Whether expressed verbally or not, children will have concerns and questions.

Children have very sophisticated ears and they can pick up on the slightest comment or conversation and misinterpret information because of their lack of understanding and experience so it is even more important to guide, as well as check in on what a child is thinking and feeling.

There are, of course, scenarios and information that are too much for younger children to comprehend. But, children deserve honesty at a level that they can grasp. Kids can sense they are being patronized easily and sugar coating the truth to extremes just tatters trust and increases anxiety for young ones.

Making general, factual statements about a situation with facts is much better than skirting reality. Sharing the truth, for example, that grandma has a problem with her heart and she is in the hospital so that they can help her heart, can go a long way to instilling trust and opening communication.

Children are seeking information and context as well as answers to “what will happen to me?” Be clear in helping them know how the situation will change things in now and near future — like a routine may change or who might be around the house.

Getting ready for a visit to the hospital

Parents can, naturally, assume that a hospital isn’t the best place for a child. Kids can cause noise and confusion that could upset things in the hospital and there may be scary sights, sounds and smells that could upset the child.

The best approach for a child of a reasonable age, is to ask them if they would like to go to the hospital and visit the loved one. Tell them what they might see or how the person might look different. But, also, reinforce that you will be together and your loved one will be excited to see them. Also, that the hospital is happy to have visitors to come and visit. It’s ok to visit. In fact, they encourage it so that your loved one gets better faster.

Depending on the department or unit where the patient is located, your child may see different equipment. It’s helpful to show them online, or in one of the suggested books highlighted here, what machines they might see and that each machine, tube or item has a purpose related to your loved one’s health. Some test your heart beat and others test how much oxygen is in your blood.

Hospitals can become pretty boring to kids relatively quickly so it’s always wise to bring books or other quiet activities, like coloring or puzzles that can keep them occupied.

Even though going to hospital can feel scary to a child (and an adult for that matter), a hospital is meant to be a place where people go to get better and to be cared for by talented and helpful people. That kind of message should reinforce the positive nature of healthcare and what the goal of being in the hospital typically is…to get better and to go home.

We’ve collected several book recommendations from a children’s librarian and reviewed them ourselves. You can find these wonderful books in our Reading Room. Two of my favorites are “You Are the Best Medicine” and “Going to the Hospital“. If you have a favorite book that helped your child (or grandchild) deal with illness or visiting the hospital, please suggest it here.

Have any tips around preparing your child to visit a loved one in the hospital? Join our community and please share them below.

About @susanharkema

Susan is the creator of MyHealthVoice.com, built upon her 20+ years in healthcare and her experiences as a caregiver and patient. She is a writer, speaker and advocate for people living with chronic or life limiting illness as well as their family and professional caregivers. Learn more - www.myhealthvoice/susanharkema/.

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