When I was five, my parents took me to the hospital, where my tonsils were removed and I spent the night.
I felt shocked and abandoned when my parents left at the end of visiting hours. But in the sixties visiting hours were visiting hours, and parents went home.
Even if their kids were terrified.
Childhood surgery was one of the most traumatizing events of my life.
Why? Because I was a child. I wasn’t prepared for the experience. I had no context to help explain what was happening to me, so I reacted in fear. I was in pain. I thought I was going to die. And my parents were ditching me.
My parents didn’t mean to be brutal–just like I didn’t mean to be brutal when I helped hold down my children during painful childhood medical procedures. So how can parents help reduce medical trauma for their kids?
How can adults help prepare children for medical trauma?
By introducing them to the experience. For instance, you can help prepare kids for medical procedures with age-appropriate books, toys, and videos. You may also want to have them talk to a medical professional to help calm any fears. Giving them a sense of context before a procedure takes place can help reduce fear.
By anticipating their anxiety. Most children, teens, and even adults dislike hospitals. It may be helpful to have your child visit a pediatric unit and talk to the kids and staff. Let them ask questions about the things they’re afraid of, and give honest answers. Don’t lie about things like shots or IVs. Let them know you’re proud of how strong they are if things hurt a bit. If they’re young, encourage them to take a stuffed animal or “boo-boo buddy” with them.
By encouraging questions and conversation. Honesty creates empowerment and a sense of safety. Whenever reasonable, give your child the opportunity to choose participate in their treatment. Encourage them to interact with their health professionals and to learn how to manage their illness.
By teaching kids how to be resilient in a tough world. People get sick and need medical care. The world is full of illness, and sometimes the best thing is the hard thing. Children will never learn to be resilient unless they learn to manage stress, pain and adversity. Unfortunately, medical tests and procedures often fall into the “stressful” category of life’s yucky stuff. Teaching your child to expect challenges in life before and as they face them is crucial.
By reassuring them with your presence and comfort. The most important thing you can do for your child is to reassure them that you will be there for them. This might mean having someone stand in for you at times so you can fulfill work or other responsibilities. But assure your child that you will not abandon them in a scary place. You will be there to care for them. Then follow through.
For more information on childhood trauma, check out Does My Child Have PTSD?I highly recommend this book to parents, educators, youth workers, social workers, medical workers, and anyone who works with or cares about children.
What have you done to help prepare your children for medical trauma? How have they responded?