Imagine not feeling well, and being dragged to a new place. The people are unfamiliar and speak in a language you can’t easily understand. They make you change your clothes to the ones they offer, force you to stay in a small, uninteresting room, and maybe even keep you from eating or drinking anything. They come at you with painful instruments and poke and prod you all over. You just want to go home, but these strange people won’t let you. You start to wonder if you did something wrong, and are being punished.
The scenario sounds pretty rough, and not something that many adults run into. Children, on the other hand, can see hospitalization like this. The foreign environment is scary, as well as the new faces they see and the new words they hear. Even with a parent by their sides, children are often scared and can’t really comprehend what is happening and why.
Helping children gain the comprehension needed to lower anxiety is the basis of the child life specialist role. Child life specialists are employed by hospitals around the world, and can be found working in general pediatric units, pediatric intensive care units, day surgery, radiology, oncology, and many more areas. The goal of the child life specialist is to reduce the stress and anxiety many children and families experience while undergoing care in a medical setting.
This main goal is accomplished in many ways. Child life specialists are trained in child development, and know that the way children learn and cope is through play. Children are able to gain mastery over fears through play, as well as express misconceptions and feelings about medical care. Medical play is a staple in the child life toolbox. Using either real or pretend medical equipment, children can work out their feelings and understandings of procedures and treatments they have experienced or will experience. Through this play, child life specialists are able to see what the child actually understands, and then correct any misconceptions.
Another important child life tool is distraction. Nobody likes getting a needle or other painful procedure, and child life specialists use distraction to make the procedures easier on children. Depending on the individual child’s preferences and age, a child life specialist might use toys that light up or make noise, bubbles, I Spy books, counting and more to refocus the child’s attention during a painful or uncomfortable procedure. Technology is also becoming important in this role; many child life specialists are now using game and relaxation applications on things like tablet computers to distract and comfort children during procedures.
While distraction helps a child during a procedure, preparation is key before that procedure. The fear of the unknown is often stronger than the fear of the known, and this is clear in daily child life practice. Children need to know what is going to happen, whether they are having surgery, a limb casted, or starting chemotherapy. They need to know what it will feel like, if there will be pain, and what the child’s role will be. Will the child have to hold still during a CT scan, or will the child be receiving medicine to make him or her sleep? These details allow a child to feel more in control, and often help a child experience less anxiety prior to and during the procedure.
Play, distraction, and preparation are the building blocks of a child life program. Child life specialists have many other roles and responsibilities, as well, such as helping children transition back to school, running community outreach programs, and providing bereavement support and legacy building. They work hard in collaboration with all members of the team, from the patient and family to the doctors and nurses, in order to assure that the child and family have a positive experience within the medical environment.