When Your Child is in the Hospital

The hospitalization of a child can be a frightening experience for a family. The young patient faces an unfamiliar, scary and perhaps painful situation. Parents, who are used to being in charge, may suddenly find themselves helpless and dependent on hospital procedures and personnel. Siblings can feel anxious, confused and neglected while their parents' attention seems to be focused on the brother or sister who is in the hospital.

The following suggestions can help families cope when a child goes to the hospital.

  1. The best thing you can do for your hospitalized child is to stay with him or her for as much time as possible - around the clock if you can.
  2. Remain as calm as possible. Adults who are hysterical or threatening place an intolerable burden on busy nurses and their behavior can be upsetting to the child as well. If you feel you are losing control, ask a spouse, friend or relative to take your place with the child until you calm down.
  3. Insist on clear explanations from medical personnel as soon as they have time to talk with you. It may be helpful to write down your questions or take notes during your conversations with the medical team. You may even be able to record these conversations on cassette tape. Give your child honest explanations of what is going on and encourage the medical staff to talk directly with him or her.
  4. Try using puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, picture books and stories when explaining medical procedures and treatments to young children. Encouraging a young child to pretend to listen to a teddy bear with a stethoscope, take blood from a doll, or x-ray a stuffed animal can help him or her regain a sense of control.
  5. Take a few familiar items from home to the hospital. A favorite pillow, blanket, stuffed animal or toy can be very comforting to a child in unfamiliar surroundings.
  6. Don't be afraid of spoiling the hospitalized child. Small surprises or gifts, special food (when they are medically permitted) or other treats provide the "up" side of hospital life. For example, a small tape recorder can play messages from friends and family, record stories and songs that parents read or sing - and provide a brief respite for a parent while the child plays back a small book they have just recorded together. If you don't have a small recorder, you might want to borrow one from friends.
  7. Ask your primary physician about visits or examinations from other doctors, especially if you are in a teaching hospital. Make your wishes clear if you don't want your child examined without your permission. If medical students become a nuisance with questions, refer them to your child's chart.
  8. Recognize that witnessing what happens to other patients may distress your child. Try to provide brief, simple explanations and ask the nursing staff for help in explaining the situation or providing comfort. Your child will be puzzled and upset if you ignore the suffering of others.
  9. Help your child maintain contact with the world outside the hospital. Encourage friends and relatives to send cards, pictures or small gifts and to make visits if the patient is well enough. For a school-age child, a telephone call or visit from a favorite teacher can be very reassuring. This is particularly true if the teacher promises that extra help will be available for make-up work and encourages the child not to worry about school, but to concentrate on getting better.
  10. Remember that becoming a patient makes a person of any age feel helpless and vulnerable. It is expected that children may be frightened, angry and demanding. Children of all ages may regress and want to be sung or read to, rocked, cuddled or comforted in ways familiar to them at a much younger age. Accept their feelings and avoid suggesting that they be brave or big. Nowadays, good hospital professionals know that it's ok to be scared, to want your parents and to cry.
  11. Brothers and sisters of the hospitalized child will also feel scared or even resentful that all your time and attention seems to be going to the patient. Audiotapes can help here, too. Perhaps you and the patient can make a tape to be played at home, telling brothers and sisters that they are thought about and loved, reminding them of the activities they can do without you, and that you will do with them very soon. If possible, arrange for siblings to visit the patient, but prepare them carefully for what they will see. When friends and relatives ask what they can do to help, suggest activities they can do with siblings at home.

Providing comfort and care for a hospitalized child can be exhausting. Ask your employer for time off, including some time when your child first returns home. Although everyone in the family will feel a sense of relief when the hospital experience is over, the transition back to everyday home life can be unexpectedly difficult.

After-care can be very demanding and families may experience additional adjustment difficulties. Ask friends and relatives for any help they can provide, from food and child care to transportation and a sympathetic listening ear. Most people want to be helpful, but are reluctant to intrude or to do the wrong thing. People who love you will appreciate your direct request for specific kinds of help in this emergency situation and during the recovery period.

Let everyone, including doctors, nurses, technicians, family and friends know when their kindness made a difficult situation more bearable for you and your hospitalized child.

Source: Jennifer Birckmayer, Department of Human Development, NYS College of Human Ecology; and Denyse Variano, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 96


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015