This is a post by Jeri Kayser, who’s been a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota since 1985. Her educational background is in child development and psychology. She has three children who have been a great source of anecdotes to help illustrate developmental perspective. They’re wonderful at being good sports about it.
Something needs to happen; something that was not your child’s choice, and it’s going to require some cooperation on their part. Maybe it’s a trip to the dentist, a haircut, a move to a new school or dinner with some overbearing relative at a restaurant with cloth napkins. Like all successful endeavors, a little planning can go a long way.
Working with children about to have surgery gives me a pretty unique vantage point as to what helps when preparing a child for something new and challenging. The following are some thoughts to consider when faced with this daunting task.
How do you feel about what’s coming up? What have been your experiences doing this event and what have you found helped or did not help? Personal confession: Going to the dentist is not on my top million list of things to do. I know this about myself so when it came time for my kids’ first visits to the dentist, I was honest about my feelings. I knew that anything I said about the upcoming visit to the dentist was going to contain some of my bias. While explaining what would be the sequence of events, I included where I felt challenged and what I did to make it better. Your emotional context of the event is going to be different from your child’s because you are unique individuals with unique perspectives.
Respect your knowledge of your child
How does your child best take in information? Do they need time to process or does time make them more anxious as they imagine every worse case scenario? Do they learn better hands-on or are they a better visual learner and like to read about a new event before they participate? Every child, at each stage of their development, is going to have their own way of approaching new information.
Find out what your child already knows
Often, when a parent has just confessed to me that they haven’t told their child anything about surgery, the child will be able to go into immense detail about what is going to happen. They know. They listen. They pay attention. The information is just so much more meaningful when there has been a direct conversation with opportunities to ask questions. When you ask your child what they already know, their response can give you helpful guidance in how they understand the event and what, if any, misconceptions they might have.
What to expect and what is expected of them
Not knowing what is going to happen is usually the source of anxiety, not what is actually happening. We as adults can think through all of the possibilities of what to expect and have more life experiences from which to draw. Kids tend to get more anxious about stepping into the great unknown and fear that loss of control. Explaining what will be happening in a step-by-step approach is comforting in its sense of predictability. Be sure about your facts. Shorter descriptions tend to be more accurate and easier to listen to. End the timeline of the event with something you will be doing when you are done and back home. This helps reinforce that the event won’t last forever and normalcy will return. Kids also need to know what is expected of them, when will they be required to be cooperative and what the repercussions for misbehavior are.
Questions from the audience
Make sure you leave time for questions right after you’ve finished explaining what will happen or later when your child may have additional thoughts on the topic. If you ask a person if they have any questions, the typical response is no. A more helpful way to get to their thoughts could be to say, “Think of three questions you might have about (fill in the blank).” If you can’t answer a question, have your child write it down and make a list of questions to bring to whomever is most likely to have the answers.
Was it like what you thought it would be like?
This is a good question to sum up the experience. This is also a good question to encourage conversation about what went well and what they would want to change to make it even better the next time. If things didn’t go well, there is actually much to be learned by that. Success is a good ego booster, but failure is a better teacher. As you process what happened, you are also teaching your child how to face a new challenge, which is an invaluable gift for the rest of their life. Well-prepared kids tend to face any challenge with more skill, confidence and success.
It is very gratifying to watch your kids handle something you weren’t sure they could, and their self-discovery of just how strong they can be is priceless.