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Preparing Your Children to Visit You in the Hospital

You’re in the hospital: you’ve just had surgery for a non-life-threatening condition.  Your children want to visit you in the hospital.  How do you prepare them for what is to come?

Hospital visits minimize separation anxiety and reassure your children that you are ok.  However, young children (more so than older children) who are allowed lengthy hospital visits can find those visits traumatic.  Younger children should be allowed brief visits daily.  Older children may be allowed longer visits. 

Elementary-aged children should not visit you while you are under the influence of anesthesia, behaving in a drugged or sedated manner, or dealing with a variety of tubes and wires in or on your body.  These things can shock and traumatize elementary-aged children.  Older children may be able to handle such things better.

Except for children who are pre-verbal (i.e., infants), you should explain to your children via telephone what they will see and experience when they get to the hospital.  Give your children an opportunity to ask questions of you and be forthcoming but tactful in your replies.  Concrete answers, as opposed to tentative answers, work best (i.e, “I don’t have any tubes sticking out of me like you see on TV sometimes.” as opposed to “I don’t think I look scary.”).  Older children will typically ask for information with greater specificity than younger children usually seek.  Your children will need to work through their fears and separation anxiety.  Praise your children, tell them that you love them, and state that you look forward to being home with them soon.

In advance of your children’s visits, do as much as is reasonable to make yourself look like you usually do when you are at home.  Brush your hair (eliminate “bed head”), put on cosmetics, wear a bathrobe over your hospital gown, etc.  You want your children to see you looking as healthy and normalized as possible.

Encourage your family to maintain as much of the family’s routine as possible while you are in the hospital.  Disrupting your children’s routines significantly can increase the likelihood that your children will perceive your hospitalization as traumatic or difficult for them.  So, if your children wish to visit you at 6:00 p.m., which is your usual dinner hour, you may want to arrange for the hospital to deliver your dinner (and guest dinners for your children) at the designated time.  By doing so, you and your children can have dinner together at your usual dinner time.

Prepare for your children’s emotional responses.  Children up to age two may be fussy for a while: comfort and reassure them.  Children between the ages of three and 13 may experience regressive behavior (i.e., behavior that is typical of a younger child), fear that they may “catch” what you have or feel responsible for your having it, fear telling you how they feel, or exhibit delayed or redirected emotional responses (i.e., a redirected emotional response is a response that appears directed at something other than it’s true focus . . . so, for example, a child crying about spilled milk rather than his/her fears of his/her mother’s upcoming surgery).  For children in this age range, be on the look-out for their emotional responses and address them promptly and reassuringly.  Children over 13 years of age can generally be expected to handle your impeding surgery by reasoning through what is happening, seeking comfort from their peer support group, and having emotional responses that are direct and clearly linked to your surgery: for children in this age range, you need to provide as much information as they reasonably seek and reassure them that you will be ok.

Ensure that your children have trusted adults who can initiate post-visit de-briefings with your children.  For example, if your spouse or babysitter drives your children to and from the hospital, ask your spouse or sitter to talk with the children on the drive home . . . ask questions like, “Did Mommy look like you expected her to look?” or “How are you feeling about today’s visit?”

By taking these steps, you will be helping to reap the benefits of your children visiting you in the hospital while simultaneously minimizing any adverse reactions your children may have from the hospital visit.

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