Helping kids during an adult's hospital stay

A parent's or grandparent's hospital stay creates stress, worry and fear for children in the family. "Why is Dad at the hospital?" and, "Is Grandma going to die?" are typical questions kids ask.

Colleen Lacey is a child life specialist at United Hospital who is professionally trained in child development. She offers a range of ways to help families understand and respond to the needs of children and teens, especially during sudden or traumatic medical events.

During these difficult times, it's easy to overlook children's needs. The danger for children, Lacey said, occurs when they overhear information and create misconceptions based on their fears and lack of understanding.

Parents are often unsure how much to tell a child. Lacey emphasized the importance of being honest and communicating in a way the child can understand.

This conversation should include:

  • a broad, accurate statement, such as "Dad (Mom, Grandma or Grandpa) is seriously ill." This opens the door for the child to talk about what he or she is feeling.
  • the name of the illness or injury. Use the correct term and age-appropriate words. This will help the child retell the story to friends or teachers.
  • your best understanding of what will happen at the hospital and how this might affect the child. Be hopeful, yet honest. For example, "My doctor wants me to stay in the hospital until my infection is gone. Daddy will be home with you."

Be sure to ask what your child wants to know and answer honestly. "Kids aren't harmed when you're honest. Parents often are surprised that the conversation is easier than they thought," Lacey explained.

"Should my child visit the hospital?" is another common question. Start by asking whether the child wants to visit. "Either choice is OK," Lacey said.

Prepare your child by describing the sights, sounds and smells in the hospital room. If you can, take a few photos from a child's eye level and show them before the visit.

Children can get bored in a hospital room, so it's important to bring toys or art materials. A bonding activity, like snuggling up with a parent to watch a movie, can reassure the child.

Source: Healthy Communities Magazine, Fall 2012 edition
Reviewed By: Colleen Lacey, child life specialist, United Hospital
First Published: 10/01/2012
Last Reviewed: 10/01/2012

a girl holds her doll while an adult and doctor talk in background