10 Tips for Making the Most Out of a Child's Visit With a Hospitalized Parent

Laura Bruck
Published: Tuesday, Mar 15, 2011
Child visits parent at hospital1. Check the Rules. Visiting policies, especially those pertaining to children, differ from hospital to hospital and from unit to unit. To avoid disappointment, be sure to ask about these policies before promising a visit to your child. Also keep in mind that, depending on the type of treatment they are receiving, cancer patients may have compromised immune systems that make them especially vulnerable to contagious illnesses such as the common cold or flu. For this reason, children (and adults) should visit only when they are healthy.

2. Time Your Visits. Whenever possible, schedule your visit for a time when you can devote your full attention to your child. Hospitals are always busy places but some times are busier than others, such as during shift changes, physician rounds, and scheduled tests or treatments. Children often enjoy visiting a parent during mealtime. This gives them a sense of normalcy in that they can do the same thing they are used to doing at home: eat with mom or dad. Ask the hospital’s dietary department if you can order an extra meal for your child.

3. Keep Visits Short and Sweet. Young children have short attention spans, even when visiting a beloved family member. While an adult might be happy to sit at a patient’s bedside for hours, toddlers, preschoolers, and younger school-age children are usually ready to move on to a new activity after 15 or 20 minutes. The adult who accompanies your child to the hospital should be prepared to provide appropriate distractions (such as toys or coloring books) or to take him or her for breaks outside the patient area (such as a trip to the cafeteria). Ideally, more than 1 adult would accompany multiple children on a visit, allowing 1 adult to stay behind with the patient while another gives a child a break or leaves early, should the need arise.

4. Prepare Your Child. For many children, a visit with a hospitalized parent is their very first exposure to hospitals and all things medical. Hospitals are full of new and sometimes frightening sights, sounds, and smells. Children also may be upset by the sight of an ill parent whose appearance is different from what they are used to seeing. Children who are prepared for what they might experience while visiting are less likely to be upset or fearful during and after the visit. For older children, simple age-appropriate explanations of what they might see and hear are usually sufficient. For younger children, supplementing such explanations with a book that includes pictures of wheel chairs, IV poles, monitors, and so on can be especially helpful.

5. Follow Up After the Visit. Watch your children and try to see what they see. A child may, for example, be frightened or confused by a piece of equipment or by another patient, but may be too young or too afraid to verbalize those feelings. Whether during or after the visit, a conversation that starts with, “I noticed that you saw your mom’s roommate and all of those machines she is using. Do you want to ask me any questions?” is a great way to encourage healthy discussion. It is also important to differentiate the sights and sounds that pertain to a child’s parent from those that do not. For example, telling a child, “That lady has an illness that is different from what your mom has, and that machine is for her, not for your mom” can be extremely reassuring.

6. Ask for a Child Life Specialist. Nearly every large hospital employs 1 or more child life specialists. These experts in child development are specially trained to help children deal with medical issues. They can help answer questions and give age-appropriate explanations about your diagnosis, your treatment, and what the child will experience when he or she comes to the hospital. If your hospitalization is planned (eg, an upcoming surgery), a child life specialist may be able to arrange a tour ahead of time. This way, your child will know what to expect before the first visit.

7. Give Your Child a Choice: Children can sometimes be fearful about visiting a hospitalized parent. The reasons for such feelings vary widely, and depend upon factors such as age, maturity level, previous experience with hospitals, and ability to cope with the parent’s illness. A child should never be forced to visit an ill parent or made to feel guilty about not wanting to do so. Instead, children should be encouraged to communicate in ways that make them feel most comfortable, such as by phone, e-mail, letters, or video chat.

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