As a pediatric nurse of 20 years, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard parents say, “If you don’t hold still they’ll give you a shot!” And I would turn to the parent and say “You know, your child will now think that he did something wrong every time he gets a shot.” I would normally get a puzzled look back. Other comments would be making light of the situation so as not to upset the child or to keep the procedure a secret until it was actually happening.
I know that the parents were just trying to have their child show up and hold still so I could do what I needed to do, and I appreciated that. But the mark it leaves on future visits to medical providers and the trust it takes away from the nurses and doctors is doing a disfavor to everyone.
So, I plead to every parent:
It hurts your child more when messages are mixed or hidden. They get confused. In all reality, the anticipation of the medical procedure’s worse than the actual procedure.
At almost every procedure I will be asked by the child, “Will it hurt?” This is where our tendency to make light of the situation kicks in, because we all know that there’s a good chance that your child will object to the stated explanation.
Children will almost always relax more when they can sense that you’re being completely honest to the best of your ability, rather than if you tell them a white lie — even if it’s going to hurt.
I say something along the lines of, “Yes, it will hurt. It’ll feel like a pinch. It’ll be very quick if you hold still and you can choose where I poke. Your mom and dad can stay here with you if you want.”
At this point, most parents are holding their breath. Sometimes I’d have a panicking child on my hands, but most times they’d make me proud and follow my lead. The thing is that if they freak out, we hold them down, just as we did if we hadn’t given them the option to cope better.
I remember spending 20 minutes in the ER convincing a seven-year-old that he could hold still for an IV insertion after having been traumatized. I don’t think his parents ever understood how important and empowering it was for him to face his fears and do this with me. To sit still as I was poking him… and he did it!
I promise you that if you’re always honest with your child, to the best of your ability, you’ll give your child a possibility to be courageous and he or she will make you proud.
Kids, too, can rise to the challenge.
I know that many medical professionals will do the opposite of what I suggest, because they mostly approach children at work as they would parent at home. And we are all different when it comes to parenting. It can be very difficult to stand up to medical professionals as a parent, especially because you feel under the whip when you have a sick child.
Here’s what to do:
- Prepare your child as best you can. Normally you want to prepare as many days prior, as your child is years old.
- Talk to your child about the upcoming procedure and validate feelings and emotions as being important and understandable.
- Bring a favorite toy to the procedure or hospital if your child has one.
- Tell the truth (even if unpleasant).
- Stay with your child during the procedure if you’re allowed to and if you’re capable of supporting him or her.
- Be firm and calm in your voice and let your child know that this has to be done, but you’re not going anywhere (if that’s the case).
- Remember that your reaction affects your child and his or her ability to cope.
- Believe that your child can do it. If you believe in your child, your child will believe in him or herself.
- Insist that the medical staff explains the procedure to your child ahead of time and gives a heads up on what they’re doing. The facility might have Child Life Specialists that can be available to do just that. They’re educated in child development and know how to talk to kids at different ages, much better than staff does.
- Distract your child when you can.
- Forgive and understand your child if he or she panics anyway. Don’t shame.
- Praise your child for doing a good job. He or she coped the best he or she knew how to.
Since it can be difficult to explain the procedure to a smaller child without pictures, I wrote some story format picture books for parents and children, helping prepare for the most common procedures. You can find them at BastianAdventure.com.