Talking to your child about treatment

Medical treatment can be emotionally and psychologically difficult for a child.

Telling your child what will happen and why can relieve the stress and help them cooperate with nurses, doctors and other providers.

Knowing what to expect and developing coping strategies will make the procedure easier for your child to handle. With tools to deal with the experience, they’ll undergo less emotional distress and work more constructively with providers.

Provide your child accurate information in the gentlest possible language. Tell your child the procedure’s purpose. Talk them through each major step in the procedure and explain why it’s being done.

It helps to tell them what they’ll see, hear, feel and smell along the way. Your medical team or child life therapist may be able to help with some of that information.

Develop and rehearse coping strategies with your child, such as distraction and guided imagery.

Age-by-age guide to talking to children about medical treatment

Infants

  • At this age, preparation primarily is for parents. Parents should ask their health care team what to expect during the procedure.
  • If possible, parents should participate in the care of their infants.
  • Leaving a pacifier or unrestrained thumb can help them comfort themselves and minimize stress.
  • Wrap infants in blankets to help keep them calm and still.
  • Use comfort positioning when possible. This holding technique provides comfort during procedures. Your child life therapist can help with comfort positioning tips.

Toddlers (1 to 3 years)

  • Talk to toddlers no more than a day in advance so they don’t experience unnecessary anxiety.
  • Explain procedures in simple, easy-to-understand words.
  • When possible, allow your child to look at, handle and ask questions about any equipment before it is used.
  • Give toddlers choices so they feel they have some control.
  • Because toddlers fear separating from parents, the presence of caregivers and parents is crucial.
  • Bring security objects to the hospital, such as a blanket or stuffed animal.
  • Read storybooks about the medical experience and play with real and pretend medical equipment, so toddlers know what to expect.
  • Reassure toddlers they have not done anything to cause the situation.
  • Use comfort positioning when possible. This holding technique provides comfort during procedures. Your child life therapist can help with comfort positioning tips.

Preschool (3 to 5 years)

  • Plan a coping strategy in advance and allow preschoolers to choose techniques that might help them.
  • Use simple explanations to describe what children will hear, see, smell and feel in the hospital.
  • Ask open-ended questions of your preschooler to discover fears and fantasies.
  • Reinforce that no one is to blame, this is not their fault and they have done nothing wrong. The illness or injury is not a punishment.
  • Read books about hospital experiences they might have.
  • Play “hospital” with real or pretend medical equipment.
  • Use comfort positioning when possible. This holding technique provides comfort during procedures. Your child life therapist can help with comfort positioning tips.

School age (5 to 12 years)

  • Use diagrams, pictures and objects to teach children about their medical situation.
  • Explain medical equipment and what will happen.
  • Let children express their feelings and validate their fears (tell them it’s normal or natural to be afraid).
  • Find a task for your child that will be a help to doctors, nurses or you.
  • Be honest. Explain the procedure using who, what, why, when and where.
  • Plan a coping strategy in advance.
  • Use comfort positioning when possible. This holding technique provides comfort during procedures. Your child life therapist can help with comfort positioning tips.

Teenagers (13 years and older)

  • Use detailed information, explaining sights and sounds of the hospital environment or procedure.
  • If your teen continues to ask more questions, supply more detailed information.
  • Respect their need for privacy.
  • Realize they may know less than it appears, but they may be afraid or embarrassed to admit it.
  • Use comfort positioning when possible. This holding technique provides comfort during procedures. Your child life therapist can help with comfort positioning tips.
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