By Shira Miller
Being in the hospital is hard. It can be especially hard on sick children and their families. Kids often are frightened about what’s going to happen to them, unable to fully understand their diagnoses, and in a strange, unfamiliar surroundings away from family and friends.
In addition, hospitalization can cause children to fall behind in school, feel isolated, become more dependent on their parents and miss social opportunities. These issues in turn can jeopardize a child’s physical, emotional and intellectual growth.
The Child Life Services program at Rush — like similar programs at other hospitals — helps children and families cope with the stress of health care experiences. March is Child Life Month, a time to celebrate child life professionals and educate people about their work.
Promoting development, providing reassurance
Child life specialists are experts in child development who work in the hospital setting. Through preparation, education, advocacy, emotional support, play and self-expression activities, their work encourages the optimal development of children facing a broad range of challenges, particularly those related to illness and hospitalization.
At the same time, child life specialists, along with the multi-disciplinary team, boost the spirits of children in the hospital.
We also provide a sense of security and familiarity for a child, and the child’s family, both those who are coming to the hospital for the first time and those who also must return time and again. Our ultimate goal is to empower the child and family to navigate through their experiences and to feel comfortable within the hospital environment, and for these children to be able to move along their developmental path, regardless of what they may be experiencing medically.
Blowing bubbles and picking pajamas
Our work as a child life specialists focuses on pediatric patients who are learning about their diagnoses, undergoing procedures or even having surgery. We help children and families understand what to expect on the child’s level, frequently using real medical equipment, dolls and pictures as teaching tools. We also help them cope with what’s happening through education, diversion or relaxation techniques.
In one particularly memorable instance, a 6-year-old girl was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam under anesthesia, but she was terrified of the anesthesia mask and wouldn’t change into her hospital pajamas. To decrease her anxiety and increase her understanding, we played with the mask for half an hour, blowing bubbles through it and blowing over towers of toy blocks with it, until the girl was ready to put the mask on her face. Then I encouraged her to choose the pajamas she wanted to wear to give her a sense of some control over the experience, and she calmly and successfully went through the procedure.
In addition to working with children throughout the Medical Center, the child life team at Rush also provides consultation services to adult inpatient units. Here, the Children of Adults’ Support Team, or COAST, supports adult patients who are helping the children in their family understand what is happening to a parent or grandparent, whether the medical issue is new diagnosis, a change in prognosis, or end of life.
From fear to empowerment
The impact of a child life specialist’s work with children and families varies broadly and is often deeply rewarding. For me, the best feeling is teaching a child and family about what to expect; helping them develop a plan and coping strategies; and then having them go into the procedure without me, hearing afterward how successful the child was.
Whether it’s helping children independently navigate an experience such as an upcoming procedure, or a parent smiling at seeing their child just “be a child” for a few minutes, child life specialists can help change the lens through which these children and families view illness and hospitalization. We have the satisfaction of seeing their time in the hospital be less about fear, anxiety and unknown, and more about learning how to manage those feelings while moving forward in a way that works for each individual child.