17 March 2008

Preparing a child for healthcare experiences

Tips for parents: It is very important to prepare children for new experiences that could be traumatic for them, such as going to the doctor, dentist or hospital.

Monday, 17 March 2008 - It is normal for parents to avoid talking to their children about upcoming unpleasant experiences. However, it is very important to prepare children for new experiences that could be traumatic for them. Healthcare experiences such as going to the doctor, dentist or hospital typically fall into this category.

Honesty is the best policy
Annemarie Oberholzer, coordinator of child support services at Netcare Unitas Hospital, says that when preparing your child for this distressing experience you should always be as honest as possible. “Once you have lied to a child, it is very difficult to regain their trust.”

Oberholzer offers parents some general guidelines to use when preparing their children for healthcare experiences:
“Get as much information as possible about the experience so that you know what to tell your child. However, do not give explicit detail about what they will not experience, such as a description of what will happen in theatre. Too much detail can confuse or frighten children.”

Using the five senses
She says it is always best to use the five senses when preparing a child for an upcoming event. “What will he/she hear, see, feel, smell and taste? Remember, all feelings are subjective and you should therefore not give your own meaning to an experience. For instance, instead of saying that the medicine tastes bad, rather say that the medicine will taste like something you have never tasted before and that some children like it while others don’t.”

Another example of what not to say is ‘the MR scan makes a big noise’. “Rather say ‘some children say the MR scan sounds like a rocket starting up, others think it sounds more like a wind in the forest’,” explains Oberholzer.

She advises that parents give their children a range of choices when describing what they might feel during or after a medical procedure. “Offering choices enables each child to respond as an individual and gives them a sense of control.”

Explain the sequence of events
It is also important that you should explain to the child the time and sequence of events. “They would understand it better if they know how many 'steps' they will go through before the procedure is complete and what will happen each time.”

For smaller children with no concept of time, the procedures can be compared to well known activities. “Use examples such as ‘to take an X-ray will take less time than a television commercial’ or ‘to put on a cast will be faster than you could eat your breakfast’,” says Oberholzer.

Not a punishment
Children often see any bad experience as punishment for something they did wrong, therefore it is very important to explain to the child the reason for the procedure or treatment and assure them that they are not being punished for some wrongdoing. “For this reason it is also very important that children are not threatened with hospitals or doctors,” Oberholzer warns.

Parents do not always know or understand what their children’s perceptions are about what is happening to them. In order to help them understand these perceptions Oberholzer suggests that parents ask their children to describe what they think is going to happen or what they have heard is going to happen.

“Children often misinterpret things they see or overhear. It is less frightening for a young child if the whole procedure is explained on a doll as if it is going to happen with the doll. Questions will be answered more readily if asked about the doll, and the true feelings of the child will be projected on the doll,” she explains. “You could therefore ask how the doll or teddy feels about what is going to happen, or whether the doll or teddy understand what is going on.”

Too much information
The final thing parents should remember is to never force information on children if they clearly indicate that they do not want to hear or experience it. “For some children this is a way of handling the trauma and forcing them to listen to things they do not want to hear will do more harm than good,” she warns.

If you have any queries or concerns, please feel free to contact the Child Support Services at Netcare Unitas Hospital at: 012 6778000.

Released on behalf of Netcare by Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA): Contact Petro on 011 469 3016 or 082 454 3529 or




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