When a child needs surgery, the focus of preparation usually is with the child.
That makes sense.
We want our kids to understand what’s about to happen so they aren’t overwhelmed or traumatized by the event. They’re kids, after all, and we adults have to deal with it, right? Or, perhaps, wrong.
After more than 30 years as a child life specialist, 20 of those in surgery, I have observed that the first person to be well-prepared should be the parent. Children respond most directly to how their parents are reacting emotionally to the event to gauge their own response.
Imagine you are 3 years old and about to get your tonsils out. This is scary because it’s hard to understand what’s about to happen and frustrating you can’t control it. Age-appropriate information and a supportive staff are helpful, but if you notice your mom or dad is anxious, nothing else matters. You got the message: You should be anxious, too, especially if your parents are trying to suppress their emotions – that is even scarier to a child. You can tell that they are upset, but you don’t know why, so you imagine the worst. If you’re a teenager, you might pick up on the message that we don’t talk about this and it will upset your mom if you bring it up to her. It’s hard to deal with the unspoken stress of your family as well as your own fears and concerns.
When I’ve observed kids coping successfully with the challenges of a health care experience, I have noticed that their families have prepared themselves with some or all of the following techniques:
Find out what is happening and why. What are the expected outcomes? What types of things can you as a family plan on doing to foster your child’s healing?
Attend a pre-admission tour
On our hospital’s website there is helpful information about surgery and how to sign up for a tour. Visiting the hospital ahead of time gives everyone a chance to learn more about what to expect and what’s helpful to do ahead of time or bring with you when you come to the hospital.
Make a list
Write down a list of questions to bring to meetings with health care providers. I remember one family kept an ongoing list in their kitchen for anyone to write down questions, and they all contributed, even the siblings. Everyone had a say, and the questions helped everyone feel a part of the event. Knowledge helps you be in control and having specific tasks you can do to support your child in his or her recovery provides focus and direction.
Be honest with your emotions
As a parent, our job is to love and protect our kids and guide them towards being an independent adult. It can be overwhelming to have to make decisions for your child that includes any potential discomfort since we so desperately want to keep him or her safe from life’s struggles, but learning to deal with life’s struggles is what helps kids learn to be independent. We also carry with us our own memories and experiences with health care that may help or cloud our emotional response to our child’s experience. It helps to pay attention to where your emotions about surgery differ from your child’s. You each get to own your own perspective.
Kids do best when we are honest with them. When you label your emotions and show your child what you’re doing to help yourself, your child gets to experience some phenomenal role modeling on how to cope with challenging situations.
“I am sad that your tonsils need to come out, but I am glad that the doctors can fix this and soon you will be able to breathe better at night when you’re sleeping,” a parent can say. “Let’s think of some fun things to do while you are healing!”
Take care of yourself
You know yourself best. Helping your child through the experience of surgery can be exhausting. Think about what will help you be in your best place. Whom can you call on for support? Even small favors like having someone else pick up your other kids from school can be a great stress reducer.
Plan on something nice you can do for yourself while waiting for your child’s surgery to be done or when you get home. This also can help you and your child focus forward and be reminded of the time-limiting nature of the experience. It won’t last forever, and soon you’ll be looking back on this adventure.
Cut yourself some slack. There is no perfect person, so there can be no perfect parent. Your effort is what your child will notice and appreciate.
We grow as individuals and we grow as a family when we figure out what works best for us to deal with life’s challenges. This knowledge is precious and affirming and gives us all the more strength to deal with the next adventure.
Jeri Kayser is a child life specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.