While most young children are healthy, pediatric surgical procedures are fairly common and can be anxiety-provoking for families. Even for young children, it is important they are prepared for surgery in order to minimize their anxiety. While some degree of anxiety on the caregiver’s part (as well as the child’s) is to be expected, there are ways you can work toward helping your child gain a better understanding and expectation of what is happening.
Honesty is the best policy with your child when it comes to the need for surgery. It is important to let them know why they need surgery, what will be happening, and when it will happen.
The first step is to convey a sense of calmness and knowledge about what is happening. This helps your child feel more at ease about surgery. If you cannot comfortably convey these emotions, start to educate yourself about your child’s surgery and ask questions of your child’s surgeon until you have a good grasp of the procedure. When you are armed with this information, you will be better prepared to explain what’s happening to your child and your confidence will make them feel at ease.
A number of books about going to the hospital or needing surgery are available for kids. These include:
- Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark
- Good-bye Tonsils! by Craig Hatkoff, Juliana Hatkoff and Marilyn Mets
- Jessica’s X-Ray by Pat Zonta and Clive Dobson
- When Molly Was in the Hospital: A Book for Brothers and Sisters of Hospitalized Children by Debbie Duncan and Nina Ollikainen
Always consider your child’s age and understanding when describing surgery. While you should not use false or “magical” terms, such as “using a special wand to make you all better,” you also should not use language that could be graphic or fear-inducing to a child, such as talking about cutting and/or sewing. Remind your child that each intervention is to fix a problem, not to create a new one.
Examples of positive language to use include:
- “The doctor will fix your leg.” Do not use “cut.”
- “The doctor will create an opening.” Again, do not use “cut.”
- “The doctor will help you take a nap for several hours.” Do not use “the doctor will put you to sleep.”
Experienced nurses or doctors will often use a stuffed animal to help gently illustrate what is going to happen to the child. This helps them understand what will happen and become less afraid. You can also involve your child in packing for the hospital, such as letting him or her pick out a favorite pair of pajamas, blankets, stuffed animals or favorite toys to make the experience more favorable.
From toddler to teenager, all kids want to know a caregiver will be there when waking up. Reassure your child you will be there to comfort him or her after surgery.
Reviewed by Dr. Heather Felton, April 2020
- Discussions with your child about surgery should be age-appropriate and honest.
- Involving your child in the packing process for the hospital and taking a favorite stuffed animal can help prevent anxiety.
- Ease anxiety by reading to them children’s books about hospitals and surgery.
- Ensure you as a caregiver have your questions answered about the procedure before explaining it to your child.