Skip to navigation

What we're up to

news item News Tuesday, March 5, 2019 Monday, March 4, 2019 2:00 PM - Monday, March 4, 2019 2:00 PM

An open letter from a child life specialist

Help prepare your child for surgery in a big way with small things

By Carolyn Duerden

To the dear parents of the child about to go into surgery,

Surgery can be a very scary ordeal for children, and also for you! The fear and anxiety your child feels is sometimes related to previous experiences, but more often it is the fear of the unknown. You may also be dealing with your fear and may feel paralyzed on how to prepare your child. Let's talk about some simple things that can make a big difference. First of all, just talking about the surgery can considerably reduce children's stress. Learn as much as you can from the surgeon about everything to expect. Talk to your child about what to expect shortly before going to the hospital. How much you share and which details to focus on depend on the age of the child. Guidelines for age brackets are listed below.

Toddler (1–2 years old)

  • Talk with your child on the evening before or day of surgery
  • Provide simple, honest answers to your child's questions

Preschool (3–5 years old)

  • Focus on what your child will actually see, hear and feel while he is awake before and after surgery
  • Encourage your child to play with a toy medical kit and read books about coming to the hospital

School age (6–11 years old)

  • Make sure your child knows that she will be in a special sleep during the surgery and will not feel anything
  • Let the child know what part of her body the doctor is going to fix and why

Teenagers (12 and older)

  • Offer opportunities for your teen to be involved in surgery questions and decisions with the surgeon
  • Validate concerns including anesthesia, privacy and missing friends or school

If you don’t know the answer to one of your child’s questions, reassure them you will be there before they are taken into surgery and can ask the hospital staff any additional questions. Let them feel in control of their experience by giving them options, like letting them choose an item to bring to the hospital. Most hospitals will let the patient bring a favorite toy, blanket or personal item into the operating room. Consider taking a tour of the hospital with your child a few days before the operation. This can reduce stress and fear, and help your child cope with the unknown.

Helping your child prepare will likely increase your child's ability to cope with this major life event. You can also help increase their trust in the hospital staff and assist in their willingness to cooperate. In addition, you can help squelch misunderstandings and decrease feelings of trauma that can come after surgery.

Children are more likely to feel anxious and afraid if they observe you being anxious and afraid. If you are calm and relaxed, it sends a strong message.  

The most important thing to remember is that your child will be surrounded by people who are eager to care for her, and asking questions is always welcome! My job as a child life specialist is to make sure your child feels well-cared-for and comfortable, but also that his family feels the same. Please make sure you utilize your child life specialist during your stay!

Carolyn Duerden is a child life specialist on the inpatient unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City.