Preparing Children for a Parent’s Surgery
You’re going to the hospital to have surgery for a non-life-threatening condition. Do you tell your children? If so, what do you say to them? How do you prepare them for what is to come?
Except for children who are pre-verbal (i.e., infants), you should tell all your children that you’re going to the hospital to have surgery. You should explain that this procedure is nothing that should worry the children and reassure the children that you will come home safe and sound in approximately ___ days following the procedure. 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’ll be fine.” as opposed to “The doctors think I’ll be fine.”). 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 give them all the verbal and non-verbal indicators possible that things are business-as-usual in your lives.
Discussions such as these should be timed appropriately for the age of your children. Older children benefit from having these discussions as soon as possible after you learn of your need for surgery as older children need time to think through your impending surgery, formulate their thoughts and feelings about it, etc. Younger children benefit most from shorter notice periods. For example, pre-school aged children generally are best served by one or two days’ notice of your impending surgery. If you have children in a variety of age ranges in your house, all children should be given the basic information of your hospitalization at the time appropriate for the oldest child in your household. Greater detail can be provided to your older children in one-on-one discussions thereafter.
These discussions should occur in private, in a setting that is otherwise calm and happy. If you hold this discussion in public, or in the midst of chaos or distress, you will increase the likelihood of an adverse reaction from your children.
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.
Tell your children that they will be allowed to visit you in the hospital, when such is permitted by hospital policy. 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.
Leave pertinent information in conspicuous locations for your spouse, babysitter or other family members so that they can be as informed as possible about caring for your children in your absence. For example, list of your children’s doctors, friends, schools, etc., along with their addresses and telephone numbers is helpful.
If your children are old enough, you may ask your children to help you prepare for your hospitalization. They can help you pack a bag of your overnight necessities.
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 solace 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.
By taking these steps, you will be helping to minimize the affect of your hospital stay on your children.
(This is the first of three articles on the subject of helping children cope with a parent’s hospitalization.)