If having surgery makes you nervous, imagine how it can seem for a child. Long hospital corridors, intimidating equipment, and people wearing surgical masks and scrubs all seem strange and frightening, especially to a youngster who's ill or in pain.
By helping the youngster anticipate and face those fears, you can ease the trauma and smooth the way for a quicker, easier recovery.
"You wouldn't just drop a child off on the first day of kindergarten with no idea of what's going to happen. It's just as important to prepare kids for the experiences they'll have in the hospital," says Robert M. Arensman, M.D., a general and pediatric surgeon in Chicago.
Many adults are still haunted by their own terrifying childhood encounters with doctors and hospitals. "Fortunately, over the past 20 years, many hospitals have become more kid-friendly," says Dr. Arensman.
For example, some hospitals invite children scheduled for surgery on a special tour several days before their operations. After the tour, they may be encouraged to draw pictures of their impressions of the hospital. Their drawings are posted in the hallways, where other youngsters will see them.
Treatments also have been designed with children in mind. To minimize children's anxiety or embarrassment, pediatric surgeons may put young patients to sleep during procedures that, for adults are done under local anesthetic.
Still, children look to their families for the emotional support they need to deal with the unknown. Depending on their ages, they're likely to have some of the following worries.
Toddlers and preschoolers worry about being separated from their parents. They need to hear that Mom or Dad will be with them or close by.
School-age children may worry they'll be disfigured—that they won't look or be able to play like other children.
Teens also are concerned about how they'll look or fit in with the crowd. In addition they also worry about missing school activities or sports.
"It's important to be sure you understand what's on your child's mind," says Dr. Arensman. "Make it clear that fears are normal and perfectly OK, and, above all, be honest. If something is going to hurt, it's better to say so and help the child prepare to deal with it."
Here are other ways you can help a child prepare for surgery:
Deal with your own fears and questions first. Talk with the child's doctor until you're sure you know what's going on and why a procedure is necessary. "If you're confident, forthright, and open, your child will be likely to feel this and behave in a similar fashion," says Dr. Arensman.
Choose a doctor and hospital that specialize in pediatric surgery. They'll be better prepared to provide the services and support the child needs.
Learn how to talk to your child about the surgery. Many doctors and hospitals offer brochures, coloring books, and other aids.
Teach your child to communicate his or her needs. Let the youngster know it's OK to be uncomfortable or scared, and to say so.
Help the child avoid last-minute anxieties by packing a suitcase in advance. Pack a favorite blanket or teddy bear.
Take control if it's an emergency. Even when a child is being rushed to surgery as the result of sudden illness or accident, you should have time to talk. "Calm things down and let the child know you'll still be close by," says Dr. Arensman.
Whether you have weeks to prepare or just a few minutes, you can help a child find the resources needed to handle the challenge of surgery.
"Kids are bright and perceptive. They realize when something is going on, even if they aren't sure what it is," says Dr. Arensman. "By taking the unknown out of the experience, you help a child feel more in control."
© 2014 Main Line Health