Child Life specialist uses iPad to help distract patient from procedures.

Mighty Blog

How distraction can help kids cope under stress

By Jeri Kayser, CCLS (Minneapolis Surgery Center)

“We need an iPad in 27!” This is a request heard often throughout the hospital. It comes with all of the best intentions and a focus on creating a positive experience for patients as they deal with things no child should have to face. We want to distract the child, prevent them from being traumatized, and we need them to hold still.

But is an iPad by itself, the best solution for distraction?

Recently, there has been a deluge of fascinating research on the science of how the brain recognizes something as painful and how that message can be modified with distraction. In 2001, a now famous study by U.N. Frankenstein et al., was conducted to determine the effects of distraction when subjects were introduced to pain from cold compresses. They looked at the functioning of the anterior cingulated gyrus (the part of the brain that basically pays attention) using fMRIs. They found that distraction seemed to help reduce the perception of pain. 

In 2015 a study by Matthew Roberts, Rebecca Klatzin and Beth Mechlin found that subjects receiving social support as compared to neutral support or none at all showed less stress and pain.

What does all of this mean for that iPad? Playing a game by yourself might help reduce pain a bit, but playing with someone as they coach you through your medical event is likely to be much more effective. When accompanied by someone who is engaged and trained to provide developmentally appropriate language and coping strategies, we can take that moment of distraction and turn it in to a powerful opportunity for empowerment and mastery.

A wise nursing colleague in surgery told me, “A distracting object can help you think of something else, but social engagement helps you focus on something else.”

Laura Stokes