When Your Child Needs Surgery: 7 Essential Tips for Parents
Parents are likely to be more anxious about a child’s surgery than their own. Knowledge and preparation are the keys to relieving anxiety all around.
Here are tips for making your child’s (and family’s) experience the best it can be:
1. Take care of yourself first.
Your child’s upcoming surgery is naturally stressful for parents. Children can pick up on a parent’s anxiety and become anxious, too. This limits their ability to cope.
Don’t be afraid to ask the healthcare team any questions you may have about your child’s surgery, anesthesia or recovery. Having enough information can help to reassure you.
2. Talk things out in a calm, quiet place.
Tell your child in simple words that he or she will be coming to the hospital. Explain why they need this procedure and when it will happen.
Encourage your child to ask questions and share feelings. This can help you to correct misconceptions. For example, some children view surgery as a punishment. Others worry they may die in the hospital if that happened to a grandparent.
Teens can imagine scenarios they’ve seen on TV or in movies, like waking up in the middle of a procedure.
Honesty will preserve your child’s trust in you and the healthcare team. If you need help explaining things, a hospital’s child life specialists can assist you.
3. Choose your words thoughtfully.
When explaining anesthesia or surgery to a child, be mindful of the language you use. Kids tend to interpret things literally, based on limited life experience.
For example, we avoid saying, we’ll put you to sleep, because many children have had a dog or other pet who was ‘put to sleep’ and never came home.
Some words are scarier than others. You can get the same message across with softer language. For example, substitute “make an opening” or “remove” for the more frightening word “cut.”
5. Let kids be kids.
Hugs, laughter — and, especially, play — are as important as medicine for children facing surgery. Play normalizes their life; it’s what kids do.
On a preoperative tour, child life workers use dolls or stuffed animals for medical play, showing kids where on the doll’s body a procedure will occur.
They’ll allow your child to practice giving you, a nurse, or the doll a shot. Your child may get a surgical cap and mask to play with using their toy medical kit at home.
This helps give kids a sense of control when, in the hospital, that control is often taken away.
If your child should wake up crying, hungry, thirsty, confused or upset — which often happens after surgery — rest assured that your child’s experienced caregivers will know how to help them feel better.