Talking to Your Child About Being in the Hospital
For children, being admitted to the hospital can be scary and stressful. No matter the reason for a hospital visit – accident, illness, or routine treatment – children and teens cope better when given honest information before their visit.
There are many ways you as a caregiver can help your child understand and prepare for a stay in the hospital.
Gather information from your child’s doctor
As your child’s advocate, it is important that you understand what is going to happen at the hospital. Learn everything you can about your child’s illness, medical treatment and hospitalization. Ask questions of the medical team so that you can answer your child’s questions.
Being informed will help ease anxiety and improve your ability to support your child.
Plan when to talk to your child
Being honest and talking to your child before a visit to the hospital is the best way to support them. Choose a quiet time with limited interruptions to talk with your child.
When choosing the best time to have a conversation, use your child’s age as a guide.
- Age 5 and under: Talk to them 1 to 2 days before coming to the hospital so they do not worry over multiple days.
- Ages 6-11: Begin talking about the hospital about 1 week before admission.
- Ages 12 and older: Teens should be included in the discussion about their healthcare as early as possible.
Help your child understand what will happen
When talking to your child about what will happen at the hospital, honesty is essential. Use your child’s age as a guide to how much and what types of information they may need.
- Focus on telling your child what they will actually feel, see, hear and smell during their visit.
- Pay close attention to your child’s cues so they do not feel overwhelmed. Behaviors such as looking away or changing the topic indicate that a child does not want more information.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and always answer their questions directly and simply. Remember that some children may need multiple discussions to feel comfortable.
If you are unsure how to answer your child’s questions, please seek support from the medical team.
Use words your child can understand
The words you use when talking to your child about medical experiences can affect how they think and feel about the hospital. Providing simple, positive language can help a child feel less scared.
- “Sometimes bodies need extra help to work the right way.”
- “At the hospital, the doctors and nurses have lots of special tools to help bodies heal and work better.”
- Use “soft” words rather than “hard” words to describe things your child may experience. “Sleepy medicine” instead of “puts you to sleep;” “warm” instead of “hot;” “camera machine that takes pictures of your insides” instead of “X-Ray.”
There are many age-appropriate books that show pictures of hospitals, equipment and medical helpers available to help your child learn about the hospital.
Help your child see the benefits and positives of going to the hospital
Many children can feel that being in the hospital is punishment for something they did. It is important to reassure your child that their medical treatment is to help the body heal. Emphasize the positives of hospitalization.
Encourage discussion about feelings
Allow opportunities for your child to talk about their concerns or worries about going to the hospital. Some common fears of children and teens include:
- Being left alone
- Experiencing pain
- Changes to their body
- Fear of dying or not waking up
- Loss of control
Reassure your child that it is normal to feel afraid, frustrated, angry, worried or sad. Listen and validate any fears they express. Provide outlets for and encourage them to positively express their feelings using activities such as coloring, playing with modeling clay, journaling or art.
Have your child help get ready
Give your child the opportunity to plan which comfort and/or play items they would like to take to the hospital. A special blanket, favorite toy, stuffed animal, pillow or photographs can provide much comfort to a hospitalized child.
Practice coping strategies with your child to use at times when they feel scared, such as:
- Breathing deeply
- Telling stories
- Singing aloud
- Squeezing your hand
- Listening to music
Support to prepare for a hospital visit
The child life specialists at Kentucky Children’s Hospital can serve as a resource to help you and your child understand medical tests and procedures and cope more positively during hospitalization. For more ways to help your child, please contact our child life specialists at 859-323-6551, or email KCHChildlife@uky.edu.