Editor’s Note: This is the first of several featured posts this month written by child life specialists in honor of Child Life Month. We hope that these posts help you understand the important role they play in a child’s visit to our hospital.
When a child enters the hospital, they enter a world of unknowns. Child life specialists are uniquely qualified to help patients and families as they face these challenges. These specially trained team members are educators, advocates, supporters and innovators.
Here are five ways a child life specialist can make a difference in a child’s visit, along with specific examples from our child life specialists:
The hospital environment is far from “normal,” and children face many stressors while hospitalized, such as procedures, physical changes or challenges, isolation and pain. People sometimes forget that children still need to be children.
Example: A 10-year-old’s anxiety and lack of interaction concerned the medical staff.
When the child life specialist spoke to her, the patient said she worried about whether she would have to stay overnight. “It’s my birthday tomorrow,” she said. Important milestones such as birthdays should be recognized, especially in the hospital. Though the girl did have to stay overnight, staff and her family ensured she had a special birthday. There were gifts and a ‘Happy Birthday!’ sign. “I was halfway down the hall when I heard as plain as day, ‘It’s the American Girl doll puppy coconut! I can’t believe it!,” the specialist recalled. “I looked back and could just see through the cracked door a huge smile spread across her face.”
Knowledge is power. Child life specialists can ease a child’s anxiety and promote understanding and confidence by providing developmentally appropriate preparation for procedures.
Example: A little boy was anxious about his admission to the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit.
His mother shared how difficult this procedure had been for him in the past. To help empower the boy and reduce anxiety, the child life specialist reviewed with him images of the EMU hookup. Together, they manipulated the equipment and rehearsed coping strategies. They discussed what he would feel, the equipment and people he would see, and even what he would smell. The child life specialist also gave him appropriate choices of things to do during the hookup; together they created a coping plan to play games on an iPad. “The patient was proud of himself for successfully completing the hookup,” the specialist said.
3. Emotional Expression
Children may have difficulty expressing emotions. This may be because they can’t communicate, they fear what others will think, or they don’t know how to express emotions in words. Child life specialists often use medical play with patients to promote emotional expression.
Example: A child shared that he sometimes was angry about being in the hospital “all the time.”
The child life specialist offered him a blank cloth doll and markers. He decorated the doll with drawings of scrapes, stitches, and black eyes, and then used this doll express himself when he felt anger. “Prior to this interaction, no one seemed to be aware that he ever felt anger,” the specialist said.
Child life specialists use play with patients to develop trust, teach them about procedures or other matters, and help children express their emotions.
Example: A preschooler stopped talking, walking, engaging with others, and playing during his hospitalization.
The specialist encouraged play by providing large sheets of butcher paper and finger paints in his room. At first the child would only let his mother put his hands in the paint for him, but slowly he began to paint more on his own. The specialist left the room for more supplies and when she returned, the child was standing on the paper, smiling, covered in paint from head to toe. After that day, the child began to play again, socialize with others, and even talk to staff members.
5. End of Life support
Medicine sometimes is unable to cure the diseases or traumas children endure. Child life specialists can be present with children in those moments to provide emotional support and promote understanding.
Example: A girl whose brother had died after a trauma.
The family was unaware that their daughter knew of the death. The child life specialist spent time with the sibling to gain her trust and offer support.
“I am very sad,” the little girl told the specialist. “My little brother passed away today.”
“How do you know that he passed away?” the specialist asked.
“I saw the blood.”
“I did not have to confirm or deny her thoughts and feelings,” the specialist explained. “I simply needed to be a safe person to listen.”
Given memory-making supplies, the girl decided to write her brother a letter and draw pictures of his favorite things. She gave the letter to the specialist to leave with her brother.
These inspiring stories are but a snapshot of the daily work of our child life specialists at Vanderbilt. The compassionate members of this team strive to improve the hospital experience of children and their families. With their help, being in the hospital is a little less stressful and children and families are empowered to overcome any obstacle they face.
Written by Brooke Calfas, a certified child life specialist on the hematology/oncology inpatient unit. Brooke is an avid sports fan, enjoys exercising, and has a love of learning.