As parents, one of our biggest fears is experiencing medical challenges with our children. If the day ever comes that you’re told your child needs surgery, it will take your breath away and cause a lump in your throat: one that never seems to go away.
After undergoing 8 surgical procedures with our son since birth in 2015 (with more in the future), I know first hand that it never gets easier with each surgery that we have to prepare him for.
Below are some tips that I find helpful when preparing a child (and parents) for surgery day.
1. Do your research & take care of yourself.
From the moment you hear the news, research everything that doctors throw at you upon a diagnosis. You know, those long words you’ve never heard before: the ones that they just rattle off like it’s no big deal. For us, it was “Your son has a high prostatic fistula imperforate anus, partial sacral agenesis, and tracheo-esophageal atresia.” Four years ago, the only word I knew within that diagnosis was “anus.” Today, I can ramble the whole thing off just like the doctors do AND I can explain every little detail that goes along with it, both in technical terminology AND in toddler language.
- do your research.
- ask an absurd amount of questions.
- join Facebook groups to connect with other families.
- talk to loved ones.
- make decisions.
- be an advocate.
Doing any of this will help to calm your own anxiety.
2. Make a plan on how to share information.
Having someone to share your thoughts with is good for the soul. Everyone needs a confidant. So…who do you plan to tell about the surgery, and share information with? During my research for our son’s diagnosis, I found it extremely difficult to prepare myself because I couldn’t seem to find much information on such a rare condition. I personally chose to share our experiences online so that others could read about our journey to help them along theirs. I know many other parents choose to only tell family, and some even keep a surgery completely private. Do whatever is best for your family, but make a plan as a family on whom you share it with.
3. Provide explanations in advance.
Here are a few things we find helpful when discussing a surgery with our son:
- Toddlers do not understand the concept of time, so we always found it easier to tell Rowen a day or two in advance. As he has gotten older, we now prep him within the week before.
- Choosing a familiar environment for discussion can be calming for kids with anxiety.
- Role play. Some hospitals will even allow you to tour in advance.
- Be honest with your explanations. Do not lead them astray from the truth.
- Reassure them that you will be there before and after the surgery to minimize separation anxiety.
- Be sure to explain all of the fun they will have, and try not to focus on the actual “surgery” portion of the day.
Above all, be aware of your expressions. Although it may be difficult to prepare ourselves as parents, being a positive role model is key.
4. Use vocabulary in their language.
Medical terminology can sound terrifying to kids, so get creative and put a positive spin on anything possible. Anesthesia has now become “silly medicine” to our son, taking his blood pressure is an arm hug, and the recovery room is the “snack” room (he named this one himself).
5. Give them a sense of control.
Allow your child to pack their own bag, bring a few playful items from home, or even pick out something new to take. This allows them to feel a sense of control in the situation, and it also comforts them from the familiar home routines.
6. Take advantage of any Child Life Specialists to distract their fears.
Surgery day can be so stressful and draining for parents, so if your hospital has any type of a child life specialist program, take advantage of it! These trained professionals come into the exam room while you wait for surgery. They have a multitude of activities geared toward specific age levels that will help distract kiddos while they wait. This portion of surgery day always puts a big smile on our faces!
7. The best medicine is YOU!
Always remember, there is nothing more comforting in the world than the warm embrace of mom and dad. Remind them that the surgery is a positive thing, that it is going to help them, and provide reassurance that you will be there as much as possible (esp when they wake up). Soon enough, surgery will be a distant memory.
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