No one likes to have surgery, but for kids it can be especially nerve-wracking since they don’t necessarily understand what will be happening.
Parents can go a long way toward easing children’s fears and preparing them for surgery by considering these suggestions:
Don’t avoid talking about it
With your child’s upcoming surgery – whether it’s a more simple operation like inserting ear tubes or something more complex like a tonsillectomy – you’re probably nervous, too. That’s natural.
But don’t let that hold you back from talking to your child about it. I’ve found that some parents aren’t sure what to say so they don’t say anything at all. Then when the child shows up for surgery it creates confusion for her since she’s not prepared.
As a healthcare provider, we don’t want your child to be surprised she’s having surgery – that can create distrust between your child and the doctor, nurse and other medical staff who will be treating her.
Stick to the basics
Talking to your child about his surgery doesn’t need to be a lengthy conversation. It’s best to go over simple details versus a list of everything that’s going to be happening. Setting it up as a problem-solution scenario can help.
In other words, he’s got something that needs to be fixed for him to feel better and the doctor will “fix it.” The age of your child and the nature of the surgery will impact the discussion. Make sure to ask your child along the way if he has any questions. And if you don’t know the answer, that’s OK. Let him know that’s something you can ask the doctor about.
Be careful with explanations
While it may seem obvious to tailor your explanations to the age of your child, be careful about the terms they use. For example, terms that adults sometimes use to describe surgery, such as “you’ll be put to sleep before the operation” or “the doctor will make a cut,” may alarm children.
They may have heard about pets being “put to sleep” and assume the worst. The idea of being cut into could also lead to undo anxiety.
The language you use is important. When explaining surgery, say something along the lines of “the nurse will give you special sleep medicine and then the doctor will make a small opening using small tools.” I also let them know what to expect afterwards, like “you may be a little tired” or “your tummy may hurt when you wake up.”
Read up. Play it out.
There are books available at the library that explain surgery to kids using age-appropriate language and images. You might ask at your local library for recommendations. Read the book(s) together in the days leading up to your child’s surgery.
Another idea is to have stuffed animals stand in for the child and the child to step into the shoes of the doctor and play pretend surgery. (Make sure you have plenty of Band-Aids on hand!)
Tap into your resources
At Akron Children’s, we’ll be there all along the way to help guide you and your child both the day of surgery along with the days leading up to it.
As a child life specialist, my job is to work with families to ensure everyone has the information they need and to reassure children. In fact, children who are having surgery here have an assigned child life specialist for them and their family to make what can be a difficult day a little bit easier for everyone.