I always tell my children that it’s my number one job to keep them safe and healthy. Some days this proves to be more challenging than others. For example, back in March, in less than 48 hours my typically happy, busy, and talkative little boy was no longer walking, talking, or responding to our questions and had undergone stressful medical procedures including a CT scan, spinal taps, EEG, MRI, multiple blood draws and IVs, and more. Having your child in the hospital or become very ill results in additional stress for you, your child, and their siblings. Parenting under these conditions requires a higher level of patience, composure, and advocacy than many of us display on a daily basis. In my professional role, I often consult with families and providers on strategies to minimize stress for children during routine or stressful medical visits and procedures. Suddenly, my husband and I had to implement these strategies parenting our own child.
When my then almost 4-year old little boy was hospitalized after a week or so of low energy and sleepiness that quickly turned into unresponsiveness, I found it very difficult to remember, let alone implement the positive parenting strategies I’ve practiced on so many occasions.
I had several moments throughout the hospital stay when I felt helpless but also moments when I was empowered and able to implement some positive strategies that lessened the stress for our son. We are blessed that our little boy is healthy and recovering and that so many wonderful doctors, nurses, family, friends, and co-workers contributed to ensuring he received the best care possible. Although the hospital stay is over, additional tests and procedures and memories of previous experiences will mean more stressful situations for our little boy and will shape our parenting practices today and in the future.
I learned a lot during this scary experience. Parenting is challenging and rewarding and takes practice and preparation. It is important to parent with patience, composure, and advocacy during stressful medical visits, hospitalizations, or procedures. Be patient with your child, other family members, and with the professionals working with your child. Keep your composure. Staying calm allows you to think more clearly and communicate more effectively so that your child’s needs are met. Advocate! You are your child’s voice. This means you keep his or her best interest in mind and communicate your child’s needs to those around you.
Empower your child: Let him make choices as much as he is able. Be creative in how you can get him involved in making decisions throughout his day and in his medical procedures. Although our son could not talk at some points, we allowed him to make as many choices as possible by giving him 2-3 options and having him point to what he wanted. This allowed him to decide what he wanted to eat or drink, what toys to play with or books to read, positioning for medical procedures, band aid colors, and order to take his medications.
Prepare your child for what to expect: I always emphasize the importance of talking TO the child rather than ABOUT the child as much as possible. This means making sure you are at child’s level (eye to eye), and using child friendly words and faces. Talk to your child and ask medical providers to do the same. Show and tell your child what to expect. Use short, simple phrases and repeat it several times. We practiced (pretended) some procedures a few times before doing the real ones. Ask the providers if they have any pictures or videos that help children know what to expect (e.g., video of MRI procedures, pictures of doctors and nurses in surgical scrubs).
Identify available resources: Find out what is available to help decrease your child’s stress. Look for someone not involved in your child’s medical care that can help you advocate for your child (e.g., child life specialist, social worker, psychologist). Our child life specialist worked with the nurses and doctors to include distraction techniques during painful procedures, brought games and toys to help our son feel comfortable in the hospital environment, and advocated for our son when we could not be present during some tests. Ask what resources or strategies other families used in the past. For example, we asked for a picture menu so that our son could make choices when ordering meals (he loves to eat!).
Most of all, show your child and other family members you love them! I am blessed to parent with a wonderful husband whose support and love made parenting under these circumstances easier!