Helping Your Child Cope WIth a Medical Emergency
Sometimes an accident happens or an emergency comes up. Parents don’t always have the opportunity to prepare a child ahead of time for going to the hospital. They have to deal with their child’s feelings after the fact. For example, a child may fracture a bone and find out after the x -ray that they need to be in traction for a week. In situations like this you have no chance to prepare him for what happened or what will happen.
When this happens, there are some things to discuss that might be very helpful for you and your child. The first thing is to go over with him what happened before he came to the hospital. Talk about what led to the injury and try to get way from the idea that he did something bad. In fact, you may need to go over that a few times. Children tend to blame themselves when something like this happens. Then after awhile talk over what he remembers about the doctor’s office and the first experience in the hospital. In other words, go over all the pieces and parts of what happened. After he tells you what he remembers then you can fill in. It is important not to go too fast or to lecture at him.
Children will often have strange ideas about medical procedures. In addition, sometimes doctors or nurses use words that children don’t understand. Then a child can build up a wrong idea about what is happening. For example, if there is a cast, a child may not really understand what is happening to his leg under the cast and how his leg will look. You need to explain it in great detail so he doesn’t get caught up in imagining something.
This can be an exhausting time for parents, it can take a lot out of you. Try to take turns staying with your child. One of you should go home for a nap. We suggest however that one of you stay overnight. Ask if a cot is available. When you go home, be very clear about how long you will be gone. After your child has been in the hospital a couple of days she’ll get used to it and you can get away for awhile during the day, especially if the hospital provides some special things for children.
While your child is in the hospital talk to him about each thing that happens. Don’t over sympathize- just be clear and reassuring. It’s very important to bring his favorite stuffed animal or cuddly. Sometimes parents push the ‘be a big boy’ theme a little too much. Let him have his tears and distress, he needs to let it out– just as you do.
Many hospitals now have an available play therapist that meets with children for awhile each day and plays out some of what happened to them. This takes a particular skill and it can be very calming to a child to replay the whole experience with toys. Be sure to ask about that. What’s important is to reach his feelings about what happened to him. The therapist may use drawings, paintings, a puppet show or a doll and some doctor’s equipment or just let him play with whatever he likes in the room. The idea is to help your child get his feelings out while he is in the hospital so he is not just a victim.
Try to prepare your child for what things will be like when he gets home. For example, if he will have a cast on, you can tell him that. You might remind him about the seatbelt in the car and how well he does with that. Tell him that after a few days he will be able to move around the house with his cast on and that you will play games and do fun things together while his leg is getting better.
Emotions from an experience like this can last some time. Sometimes children hold themselves together very well while they are in the hospital, and then become irritable or clingy when they get home. So don’t be surprised if your child wants to be closer to you or doesn’t want to let you out of his sight or even gets very angry at you. He has a right to his feelings. He may begin to waken at night. In fact night wakening and frightening dreams are likely to occur. You’ll just have to be available to help him through that.
As far as talking about his experience when he returns home, see how he reacts. If he wants to drop the subject at that point, we recommend letting it go. If he brings it up in play or you overhear him talking to a friend about it, then it’s time to bring it up again in a casual way. You can say, “Remember when you went to the hospital–what do you remember about that?” Some children don’t say much but six months later will bring it up again. If you drive by the hospital you may want to tell the story all over again. Take a photograph with him with his cast on. Also take a photograph of him in the hospital with the nurse and doctor and put it in a little book. You can then review it together.
Going to a hospital is always frightening for a child and usually is for parents as well. The nurses and staff in hospitals are gentle and reassuring with young children. But even so, many things happen that are confusing and stir up anxiety. The better informed parents are about how hospitals work, the more likely they are to be reassuring to their child and the better they will be in managing their own tension.
If you would like guidance on this or any other non-medical child development question, and you live in the Los Angeles area you can call the Warm Line free of charge at 310-310-8646. A child development specialist will return your call within just a couple of days.
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