Helping Your Child Cope With Hospitalization

Different children cope with hospitalization, procedures, and treatments in different ways. What works for one child may not work for another. Your Child Life Specialist can support you and your child in using whatever coping strategies work best for you. Below are some suggestions you can use for helping children of different ages manage the hospital experience.

Infants (birth-12 months)

Infants need sensory stimulation, and feel most secure when they are with their primary caregivers. To help your infant cope, you might try:

  • Providing the pacifier, if your child typically uses one
  • Talking to your child in soft, soothing tones
  • Holding, rocking, or walking with your child
  • Bringing a favorite security item from home, such as a blanket or stuffed animal
  • Playing soothing music
  • Singing to your child
  • Encouraging members of the medical team to talk to your child before touching him or her
  • Keeping the lights dim and the noise level low in your child's room
  • Using comfort positioning during procedures (for example, holding your child in your lap during IV insertion)
    • Please talk to your Child Life Specialist for more information on comfort positioning.

Toddlers (1-3 years) and Preschoolers (3-5 years)

Toddlers and preschoolers need to assert their independence, and often fear strangers and separation from their parents. Preschoolers also fear bodily harm. To help your toddler or preschooler cope, you might try:

  • Bringing favorite items from home, such as toys, security blankets, stuffed animals, books, or music
  • Offering your child realistic choices when possible (for example, “Do you want to walk to the treatment room or let me carry you?”)
  • Encouraging your child to play with real and pretend medical equipment, dolls, puppets and art supplies to help him or her express feelings and work through experiences
  • Reading books to your child that pertain to his or her concerns and experiences
  • Using favorite toys or books, or blowing bubbles, to distract your child during procedures
  • Using comfort positioning during procedures
  • Reassuring your preschooler that he or she has done nothing wrong and is not being punished
  • Encouraging your preschooler to participate in his or her care whenever possible (for example, letting your child take pills himself)
  • Setting limits for your child to enhance his or her sense of security

School Age (5-10 years)

School-agers have an increasing ability to solve problems, and prefer to be in control of situations. Children also tend to worry at this age, and may fear bodily harm or loss of body function. Fears of separation may still be present for some children. To help your school-ager cope, you might try:

  • Allowing your child to participate in his or her care whenever possible (for example, allowing her to take medications herself)
  • Encouraging your child to engage in role-reversal medical play in which he or she is the "doctor," and a doll or stuffed animal is the “patient;” this type of play can help your child express feelings and process hospital experiences
  • Allowing your child to direct familiar procedures when appropriate (for example, by announcing the next step of a dressing change)
  • Using humor as a distraction technique
  • Reading books with your child that pertain to his or her feelings and experiences
  • Keeping your child informed of what's going on at home with brothers and sisters, friends, and pets
  • Bringing familiar items from home, such as books, games, and pictures of family, friends, and pets

Adolescents (10-19 years)

Adolescents are able to think about the future. They value independence, privacy, and interactions with peers. To help your adolescent cope, you might try:

  • Respecting your child's need for privacy by allowing him or her time alone
  • Encouraging your child to express his or her feelings in whatever way feels comfortable, either verbally or through music, art, or writing
  • Allowing your child to bring favorite items from home, such as books, music, and movies
  • Encouraging your child to participate in, and make decisions about, his or her care whenever possible
  • Helping your child choose the coping methods that work best for him or her during difficult procedures (for example, watching a procedure or looking away, thinking about a favorite place, blowing the pain away)
  • Encouraging your child to participate in group activities with other children his age (for example, playing pool in the Activity Center, participating in Art or Music Therapy groups)
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