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Hospitalization: Helping a Child Cope

A trip to the hospital can be scary for anyone, particularly for a child. Separation from loved ones, unfamiliarity with the hospital setting, frightening hospital equipment, and unpleasant medical procedures are major sources of stress for children. In addition, because children do not understand the nature of their illness, they may believe hospitalization is their own fault. They sometimes view pain and other physical symptoms as the result of being "bad", and their hospitalization as "punishment" for their misbehavior.

There are some things you can do to help your child deal with a trip to the hospital (except for sudden illnesses or accidents).

Before Going to the Hospital

  1. Start planning ahead of time.

    For 2 and 3 year-olds, start talking about the hospital 2 or 3 days ahead of time. If your child is between 4 and 5 years old, 4 to 7 days is best. Children over 7 should become involved in the planning process several weeks before going to the hospital.

  2. Involve your child in the preparations as much as possible.

    Let your child pack, select toys, and plan fun activities to give the child a feeling of control.

  3. Read books together about being in the hospital.

    Talking about what happens to another child or storybook character who is in a hospital is reassuring. It also helps correct mistaken beliefs your child may have. Reading about the main character leaving the hospital is very comforting.

  4. Explain the hospital experience in clear, simple terms.

    Ask your child's health care provider to help explain why certain procedures will be done and what will happen. With a young child, use a doll, puppet, or stuffed animal to show how medical procedures such as x-rays and injections are done. A child who is prepared for hospital procedures and temporary discomfort is more cooperative and less distressed when they actually do occur.

  5. Take a tour of the hospital with your child and other family members.

    Being familiar with hospital rooms, equipment, and the people who work there makes it less scary.

  6. Wait to talk to your child until you have some emotional control.

    It is best to try to help your child when you feel well prepared and in control of your emotions.

  7. Involve siblings in the preparation.

    Brothers and sisters are affected when a family member goes to the hospital. Siblings may feel guilty, jealous, and anxious. Involve them in hospital tours, demonstrations, and reading books.

At the Hospital

  1. Stay with your child as much as possible.

    Your child's greatest fear is being separated from mother and father. Visit often, sleep in a chair, or, best of all, room-in. An older child may appear quite casual about your visits, but craves them nonetheless. Invite grandparents and siblings to visit too.

  2. When you do leave, say good-bye.

    Do not try to sneak away while your child is sleeping or doing something else. Instead, make your leave-taking short and visible. Tell your child when you will return. Even though your child may cry, he or she will continue to trust you.

  3. Bring a little bit of home to the hospital.

    Family photos, recorded stories or messages, cards, phone calls, and cuddly toys all provide comfort and security. They reassure your child that he or she is loved and not forgotten.

  4. Tell the nurses something about your child.

    Let the people who are taking care of your child know a little bit about your child's favorite sports or hobbies, best friends, or special interests. This helps the nurses make the hospital stay feel more personal and comfortable for your child.

  5. An older child needs lots of support and reassurance too.

    An older child may act brave, but do not be fooled. Children of all ages find hospitals distressing, and need plenty of love and attention.

After Returning from the Hospital

  1. Listen to your child's repeated descriptions of the hospital stay.

    Help your child sort out feelings about the hospital visit by talking about bad and good events.

  2. Do not be surprised if your child acts younger than his or her age.

    As your child readjusts to being home, he or she may be more demanding and dependent. Provide extra hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement.

  3. Never use the threat of going to the hospital as a way to control your child's behavior.

    Avoid statements like, "If you don't get enough sleep, you'll wind up in the hospital again." A statement such as this only creates anxiety and guilt.

Related Topic

Keeping Your Routine When a Child Is Seriously Ill

Written by Donna Warner Manczak, PhD, MPH.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-10-13
Last reviewed: 2006-09-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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