How to Talk to Your Child About Surgery

A visit to the hospital for surgery can be scary for any child. Many parents worry about how to talk with their child about the experience. The Family Teaching Program at BMSCH urges families to talk with their children about their upcoming surgery and explore how the children feel.

Children cope better with the hospital experience when they are well prepared. Being honest with your child will help build trust with you and with the people you meet at BMSCH. Let your child know they are having surgery and explain it in simple words that your child will understand. Ask them how they are feeling about their upcoming surgery; let them know that their questions are important and will all be answered by you or by our staff.

How and when you prepare your child for surgery depends on their age. Please use the information below to guide you in talking to your child.

  • Infants
    The best way to support your infant is to prepare yourself for what to expect on the day of the procedure. We invite you to ask questions to ensure that you have accurate information. This will help ease your own fears and concerns. It is important to remember that your baby can sense your stress, so try your best to stay calm. Caring for yourself will also help you care best for your baby. Make sure you get plenty of rest the night before their surgery and don’t forget to eat something in the morning. Often parents do not eat because their child cannot. Remember that you will be better able to care for and support your child when you are well rested and fed. To create a more familiar environment for your baby, bring their favorite security item and soothing music to the hospital.
  • Toddlers (1-3 years)
    Toddlers do not understand the concept of time, so we suggest you tell your child about the surgery one or two days before it occurs. Toddlers require very simple and straightforward explanations of what is happening with minimal information. For example you may want to say, “Dr. Tom is going to make your arm better.” A detailed explanation may be scary or not understood.
  • Preschool (4-5 years)
    Preschool children often fear the unknown so they should be told about their surgery three or four days ahead of time. Your child will be very curious and want to know what to expect, so be truthful, use simple words and answer all of their questions. For example “Yes this will hurt, but it will not last long.” Children in the preschool years have active imaginations and dramatic play is a big part of their lives. Using toys, stuffed animals or pictures to help explain things will be more helpful than just telling them what will happen. Reading books related to the hospital visit and playing “hospital” with medical kits is a good way to encourage your child to explore their feelings.
    Finally, tell your child that they are not having surgery because they have done something wrong or angered you. Often preschoolers think they were “bad” and that is why this is happening to them.
  • School Age (6-12 years)
    Preparation of your school-age child should begin one week before the procedure. At this age your child is old enough to be given, clear, concise and accurate information about their surgery. Your school-age child has an increased awareness of internal body parts and body function and they will need details about what will happen before, during and after their operation. Although they are old enough to have fears about surgery they may keep them to themselves. Encourage them to share their worries and answer their questions honestly. Common fears of waking up during the procedure, not waking up when it is over and intense pain that cannot be controlled can be clarified by your honest explanations. In addition to your preparation at home, these children can highly benefit from a hospital tour and teaching sessions with a member of the Child Life team before the procedure.
  • Adolescents (13-21)
    We recommend that your adolescent be involved in decisions about their care as much as possible. Give them an opportunity to ask questions, talk to the surgeon and be included in discussions. Provide honest and detailed explanations about the need for surgery as teens often worry about how the procedure will affect them. For example, will the surgery change their looks or make them different from their peers in any way. To help your teen deal with stress and keep some control, encourage them to bring their headphones, MP3 players, laptops, tablets, books, or any other personal items that can help distract them.

Things You Should Say

  • Surgery is not a punishment, you are not having surgery because you are bad
  • Surgery in real life is different from surgery on TV
  • You will get special medicine that will help you sleep during the surgery; the doctor will make sure you do not wake up before the surgery is over.
  • You will wake up after the surgery when the doctor is completely done.
  • You/Your _____may hurt after surgery but there is medicine to make it better, Tell your parent, doctor or nurse if you hurt.

Things You Should Not Say

  • Do not refer to anesthesia as gas, something to “knock you out.”
  • Do not compare the “sleep” from anesthesia during surgery to taking a nap, or just like bedtime. Confusing surgery with normal, safe, daily routines at home may be scary. Your child may be afraid to take a nap or go to bed at night.
  • Do not refer to anesthesia as being “put to sleep.” Many children are aware that when we put animals to sleep they die.
  • Avoid saying “be brave and don’t cry.” Children need to be encouraged to talk about their feelings and express their fears before surgery. They also need to recognize and express their pain after surgery.

Siblings Need Support Too

Siblings of a child who will be undergoing surgery may feel fear, worry, guilt or confusion, and may not know what to expect. They may needs time attention, and guidance from you. Read about how to preparing siblings for when a child needs surgery.

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