How to Help Kids Cope with Surgery Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Every year, thousands of surgeries take place at Children’s National Health System. Children can feel anxious about getting surgery, which can involve several teams of healthcare providers and other personal.


Children’s National has information both in print and online, titled “Having Surgery,” that highlights many questions parents may have regarding surgery. There is also a section that identifies how to speak with your child about surgery and some examples of language to use depending on the age of the child.

To help families understand how to prepare for surgery, we spoke with two of our certified Child Life Specialists Liz Anderson and Lourdes Rocha, who work in the operating room. Child life Specialists help make families feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the services Children’s National provides.

How can parents help kids feel less anxious about anesthesia and surgery? 

Information about surgery we provide identifies how to prepare a child based on their age. It would also be important to explain anesthesia as a medicine that helps the patient fall asleep for the surgery/procedure, but that this sleep is temporary and that the patient will wake up after their surgery/procedure. Be careful to not explain anesthesia as being “put to sleep” as many children associate this with the death of a pet.

Another resource to lessen anxiety would be for families to attend the pre-surgical tour in person or to watch a virtual tour online if they are unable to attend.

What are some common fears children have about surgery?

Some common fears of younger children are separating from their parents, strangers, and things that go on their body (such as the blood pressure cuff, pulse ox, and IV). Children are also fearful of shots. It is important to note that at our hospital, anesthesia is generally done via mask, and the IV is usually, but not always as this depends on the patient, placed after the patient is asleep with anesthesia.

Older children express fears of not waking up and/or dying, waking up during surgery, pain, and body changes, specifically if surgery will change their appearance in some way.

What tips would you offer to help parents explain the reason for the surgery? How detailed should parents be?

We recommend being honest and appropriate. Parents know their child best and know how much information would be overwhelming for his/her child. It is, however, important to prepare before surgery, and let their child know they are going to come to the doctor to fix or help their current condition.

With young children especially, focus on giving simple, concrete explanations about surgery.  We also prepare children for what they will see, hear, and feel when awake; we do not talk about what surgery entails unless specifically requested by the child.  In these cases, we still use simple, concrete explanations to give information.

Older children or adolescents may be more interested in how things are done and may want more information about the surgery and process.

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