Heart Center For parents - Preparing your child

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Before your visit

Telling your child about cardiac surgery or catheterization can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for you as a parent. You may be worried about how to approach these topics with your child, when to tell your child and what words to use.

We understand that every child is a unique individual. Each child's age, past hospital experiences, temperament and coping techniques can affect how he or she deals with the upcoming procedure.

Here are some tips to help you through this difficult time.

Before you arrive at Boston Children's

The time before a hospital stay can be very stressful, since everyone is anticipating the experience in his or her own way. It's important to be aware of how your child may be feeling. Look for mood changes and worried facial expressions, so you can address your child's feelings even if she cannot express them verbally.

This is also a good time to create communication between your child and her siblings and friends. It’s difficult for young children to grasp the concept of surgery, especially the words "open heart surgery."

Our Child Life specialists can help you before, during and after your hospital stay. Boston Children's Child Life specialists can be reached at 617-355-6551.

Age-specific tips

Parents often ask for information about how and when to talk to their child about going to the hospital. There are many ways to help children prepare for a procedure or overnight stay in the hospital. A child's personality, language development and ability to comprehend information can all affect her understanding of the procedure or hospitalization. Previous hospital experiences can also influence their response.

Since children develop at different rates and since each child is different, these guidelines may not describe your child exactly, but they will still help guide you.

Newborns to 2 years old: When your child is very young, concentrate on preparing yourself for the hospital. If you feel at ease, your child is usually able to sense this and react in the same way.

2 years old to 3 years old: At this age, children don't understand time in the same way older children and adults do. Talk with the doctors and nurses about how you think your child will manage best in the hospital setting. Consider telling your child about his operation or procedure one or two days before going to the hospital.

3 to 6 years old: At this age, children are beginning to learn about the days of the week and develop a sense of time. However, it's hard for a child to understand why he needs an operation or procedure. Your child may worry that he has done something wrong. Reassure him that the hospital stay is about having something fixed and is never a punishment. Use simple, short explanations. Tell a 3- or 4-year-old child about an operation or procedure one or two days before going to the hospital, and a 5- or 6-year-old-child three to five days ahead of time.

7 to 11 years old: At this age, a child is able to understand the reason for a hospital stay or procedure. You may want to tell your child about her operation or procedure a week before going to the hospital. This will give your child plenty of time to ask questions and to talk about any worries he may have about going.

12 years old to adult: At this age, it's best to include your child, teen or adult from the very beginning of the process. Encourage him to ask questions and to talk about his worries about the hospital or their medical care. Most children are struggling for independence from their parents while at the same time seeking their support. You may want to ask your teenager how you can help him through his hospital stay or procedure.

General tips

Children need to hear about their hospital stay before they begin their experience. It helps them prepare for an event, if they have time to process new information. Therefore, knowing about a procedure and hospitalization ahead of time can help build and maintain trust between you and your child.

  • When first telling your child about the surgery or catheterization, start by using a frame of reference, such as, "Do you remember when we took you to the clinic and they took pictures of your heart? Well, the doctor saw that your heart isn't working exactly the way it should. Your heart needs to be fixed so that it works just the right way. You need to have an operation."

  • Tell your child at the beginning of your explanation who will be staying with him or her. It's helpful for your child to know that he or she won't be going through this experience alone.

  • Keep explanations simple, and wait for your child to ask questions. This way you will learn what is important to him or her.

  • Be sure your child is told at a time when you will be available to him or her. Never tell your child about surgery before bedtime. A child needs time to process this type of information at his own pace, and it helps if you're there to answer questions.

  • If your child asks a question that you cannot answer, or do not feel comfortable answering, a good way to respond is, "That's a great question. Let's write it down so we don't forget it. We can ask a person who works at the hospital." You can call Boston Children's with the question or ask us during your next appointment.

  • After you and your child finish packing a suitcase for the hospital stay, take him or her directly into your room and have him help you pack your suitcase. This is a concrete way to let your child know that you are going to the hospital, too.

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