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Welcome to the inaugural edition of our Child Life Specialist Q&A Series, where we dive into the invaluable insights and expertise of Hope for HIE’s Certified Child Life Specialist, Annie Gunning! During our live session, Annie shared her expertise regarding the ways in which parents, caregivers, and families can prepare both a child and their sibling for an upcoming test, procedure, or surgery.
Read our key takeaways below to see Annie’s specialized tips and strategies to ease anxiety, promote understanding, and empower families during these challenging medical situations.
Annie joined Hope for HIE in February of 2023 and has been an invaluable resource for our community members ever since.
For those who may not know or have yet to utilize her services as a Child Life Specialist, Annie specializes in supporting the whole family (children, siblings, parents/guardians, and extended family members) through stressful or uncertain events, especially those that take place in medical settings.
To help alleviate anxiety, she develops individualized coping plans and enforces them through preparation, education, creative expression, and medical play.
Annie is also a certified grief counselor and can offer grief support, coping strategies, and suggestions for end-of-life and bereavement.
Facing an upcoming test, procedure, or surgery can be an overwhelming experience for any child. The uncertainty, unfamiliar environment, and potential discomfort can trigger anxiety, but Annie is here to tell us that there are many strategies to help prepare and support the patient during the experience.
There may be many unknowns when it comes to an upcoming test, procedure, or surgery, and that’s why Child Life Specialists want you to know that it is okay to ask for help! One valuable resource to reach out to is the hospital’s resource staff, especially if they have a Child Life Specialist on call.
Prior to the procedure, they can provide pre-op tours, coping support, and preparation strategies to help ease your child’s anxiety and help them navigate this medical experience with greater confidence. Don’t hesitate to approach the hospital’s resource staff – or any member of the healthcare team, for that matter – to ask them to explain the steps involved or demonstrate the tools they will use. It is your right as a parent/caregiver to have a clear understanding of what will happen and to ensure your child feels supported throughout the process, especially if they have sensory needs or are easily-overwhelmed by unfamiliar environments. Your active involvement as an advocate will contribute to a smoother and more comfortable experience for you and your child.
Narrating the medical experience and verbally outlining its process in a sequential manner can be very beneficial! Breaking down the experience into manageable steps provides a roadmap of what to expect, giving your child a sense of structure and predictability.
Here’s an example of a step-by-step approach that also discusses the senses related to each of the experiences and events. This narration can benefit every child across all ages and impacts!
No matter how you decide to navigate this conversation, DO allow for appropriate processing time. Annie suggests the following, developmentally, but as the expert of your child, you may need to further adjust this timeline based on the range of their medical complexities and needs:
Each child processes information differently, and it’s crucial to meet their individual needs and provide them with the space and time to process the conversation. One key aspect of this is recognizing signs that indicate your child may need a break, whatever that looks, sounds, or feels like to them! Let them know that you understand they need some time to process the information and assure them that you are available to continue the discussion when they are ready.
Developing a coping plan empowers your child to navigate the experience with greater comfort and confidence, and this is a wonderful opportunity for you to implement various coping strategies that are tailored to his or her interests and needs! Some ideas include:
An upcoming procedure or hospital visit does not affect just the patient; it really is a whole-family experience. This is why it’s so important to include siblings in the preparation, as it can allow them to feel included and informed, give them a sense of support, and foster a sense of unity for the entire family as they navigate the medical experience together!
Just like you would with your child who is undergoing the procedure, include the sibling in the conversation as well! You can use the same tactics, or you can modify the conversation if they are in very different developmental stages. Either way, allow for processing time!
Siblings can actively participate in the patient’s medical journey, even if they are not of the medical experience itself. Finding concrete, actionable ways to include them in the preparation or coping stages of the experience can help them feel capable, empowered, and more in-tune with the situation! Consider their developmental stages when brainstorming ideas, but here are a few to get you started:
Start by creating and sharing a timeline that outlines when you’ll be away for the medical procedure and when you’ll be returning home. Address the practical aspects of daily life, too: who will pick them up from school or activities? Who will make dinner? Who will tuck them into bed?
This structure helps them anticipate and adjust to the temporary changes in the family dynamics. If you don’t have all the answers or if there are uncertainties regarding the plans or procedures, it is okay to admit it! Medical situations can be complex and ever-changing, but emphasize that you are there to support them and that you will do your best to find out more information as it becomes available.
Connection is just as important as structure – this reminds them that they aren’t forgotten throughout this process! You can consider tailoring activities to their developmental stage, age, hobbies, or personal preferences [like making connection bracelets], but it can also be as simple as scheduling a phone call or video chat!
One of the many roles you’ll play for your child is that of an advocate: you are allowed to ensure that your child’s voice is heard and that his or her needs and well-being are prioritized. Feel free to approach a member of the healthcare team at any time and ask them to explain what they are doing or to show you the tools they will use.
You’re not alone in this journey: there are many additional tools and resources you can use to help you navigate this experience and better prepare your family! Consider some of these, below:
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