For younger children
For children who have had no exposure to a hospital, you might want to start at the beginning. Show them illustrations or photos of a hospital so that they understand what they’ll see. Describe, in age-appropriate terms, what has happened to your loved one that brought them to the hospital and their condition. It’s important to make kids aware that Uncle Jim isn’t going to be his usual energetic, jokey self but will be in a wheelchair or bed, if that’s the case.
Younger children may wonder whether going to the hospital or being with their loved one will make them sick, as well. Discuss in simplest terms how they can avoid illness and accident related to your loved one, and reassure them that it’s safe to visit.
A lot of what the medical professionals do as a matter of routine can look scary, and kids may feel protective of their loved one. Explain before you go some of the medical interventions they might see—especially injections or IV insertions—so they are aware that these practices are intended to help the patient heal and feel better.
Distractions and security go a long way with younger children. Make sure you bring toys and any stuffed animals or other objects that your kids are emotionally attached to. Give them a chance to ask whatever questions they have and answer as honestly as you can.
Older children may shield themselves from some of the emotional stress of a hospital visit by focusing on the medical aspects, and this can end up meaning that they rely on words they don’t really understand. As you discuss what’s to come, ask “what does that mean to you” in response to technical language from your child. It’s helpful to ensure that they truly understand what’s happening with their loved one before the visit.
Anyone living with an adolescent knows they’re highly concerned about privacy, and the bustling hospital environment can make them feel anxious about being watched. Ask whether your child wants private time with your loved one. You won’t be able to keep out every distraction, but at least you can step away for a bit to give your child and patient some one-on-one time.
Here, as with younger children, whatever you can do to explain your loved one’s condition and what’s happening to treat it will go a long way. Will your loved one be on a ventilator? Will they be bandaged or in casts? Knowing what to expect is the best antidote to hospital anxiety.
Sharing your own anxieties
If you look forward to going to the hospital, you’re in a very small minority. Your kids may be reassured by knowing that you’re a little nervous, too. It’s natural to be uneasy around all that medical equipment and the people who need it.
Focusing on the patient can help. Remind your child that this person needs you right now and that showing up for them is important. Bring a gift, like a drawing that your child makes for the patient; it’ll give them something to talk about right off the bat when anxieties are high.
Love and support are good medicine. You and your children can be an important element of recovery.