Soothing your child's fears -- and maybe your own, too

Two-year-old Dante Young is just moments from being rolled into the operating room, but there's no time, or need, for tears. Dante is too busy watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and playing with his doctor's kit. When mom has to walk away and let the doctors and nurses take him, mom seems to be the only one worried.

Sound like your child? Well, if not, it could be, said Sandra Morecroft, a certified child life specialist at Holtz Children's Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. Her job is to make kids smile and make sure their trips into surgery are as easy as possible. Not always an easy mission.

"You'd be surprised to hear how many kids think they are here to go on a field trip -- with no idea that they are about to have major surgery. It makes for a very difficult morning," Morecroft said.

Morecroft has seen it all, from kids and parents who are panicked even before they set foot in the hospital to the families who manage to laugh and play almost throughout their entire experience with major surgery.

Morecroft's days are a constant rush between the beds in the pre-op area and its playroom, which is stocked with all sorts of toys, books, crafts, movies and video games. Morecroft does whatever it takes to make pre-op children laugh. She is half-comedian, half-psychologist. Her arsenal is her goofy faces, silly jokes, talent at peek-a-boo and, of course, a treasure chest full of fun distractions. Toddlers get blocks and cool cars. Preschoolers are busy with doctor kits that contain some real medical items such as mini-oxygen masks. And teens are trying to figure out how to beat their high score on PlayStation 2 or Nintendo DS.

You can find child life specialists at most major pediatric hospitals. They are experts in the emotional, physical and psychological development of children. They're also an excellent asset to parents and families dealing with a hospital stay because one of their other main functions is to help kids understand what is happening to them.
It's hard enough for mom and dad make sense of it all, much less a 4-year-old. The techniques and strategies used by these child life specialists can help kids deal with everything from a major illness to a routine dental visit.

So, the next time your child has a checkup and you know it's going to be a doozy, whether it's because of shots or another unpleasant experience, make sure you do your homework. Preparation and communication prior to a tough appointment or any difficult event can make it easier for you and your child.

Preparation and Communication Are Key

Leslie Hutchins, also a certified child life specialist at Holtz Children's Hospital, said you should talk to your child before the upcoming appointment. Just make sure you don't do it too early. For instance, a toddler probably won't remember what you told him a week ago. Usually a day or two in advance works best.

Be sure to explain that this doctor's visit will be different from other ones. For example, try an explanation similar to this: "This time the doctor needs to give you a shot. All children have to go see a doctor. Children need to do this to be able to go to school. We can't go to school until we get this done."

Also make sure you give enough information to help your child understand without overdoing the details. Every child is different, so the amount of details they need depends on their age, developmental stage and temperament. Trust your instinct. Playing doctor is a great tool for little ones. Use a syringe and Band-Aid on a favorite stuffed animal or baby doll to reassure preschoolers that the process is fast and simple. Ask older kids to write a story or draw a picture about what they expect to happen. Discuss their work so they'll be encouraged to vocalize their concerns. Events can seem less traumatic when we talk about them.

Hutchins, who works with kids dealing with chronic illnesses such as kidney failure, said it's best not to use words like "pain" or "hurt."

"What may be painful to one child may not be to another," she said. "But if a child asks if a shot will hurt, say, 'Needles don't always hurt, but it might be uncomfortable.'"

Give Your Child Some Control

One of the most difficult aspects of a medical encounter for a child is the loss of control.
"Think about it," Hutchins said. "We tell our children not to talk to strangers, but now we're asking them to let a total stranger have complete access to their body and do something that scares them."

The best way to ease that anxiety is to help children feel they have some control over their situation. For instance, have your child decide which arm will get the shot or which finger will be pricked. Maybe your child wants to watch the vials of blood filling up -- let him look if he wants to.