How to Cope with Your Child's Hospital Stay

Father and son talking to doctor

When you picture your young children, you picture them strong, energetic, happy and healthy. You picture them running outside, falling and scraping their knee, then getting up and continuing to chase after their friends. The last place you picture them is in a hospital bed.

Even so, a toddler’s hospital stay is something that parents have to deal with every year, and something that every parent is going to react to differently. “When you learn your child requires a hospital stay, it may raise a host of feelings such as fear, stress, anxiety, sadness, shock and denial, anger, guilt and perhaps grief,” says licensed psychologist Frank Sileo, PhD, author of When Your Child Has a Chronic Medical Illness: A Guide for the Parenting Journey. “Not everyone has the same feelings or has them at the same time. The first step is to acknowledge whatever it is you are feeling and try to accept it as normal."

From there, you can begin to deal with the situation in a way that benefits the physical and mental health of both you and your child. Here, experts share their tips and strategies for coping with your child’s hospital stay with grace, strength and resilience.

Managing Stress

Every parent experiences stress on a daily basis. But when one of your little ones is admitted to the hospital, that stress can ratchet up to unbearable levels. “A million thoughts are racing through your mind, from the immediate to-dos to the eventual what-ifs,” says Jennifer Plesz, CRC, LPC, a family counselor at Thriveworks in Sterling Heights, MI and mother of two toddlers, one of whom has health issues.

To keep stress at a more manageable level, Plesz cautions against letting your thoughts wander too far down the road. “Prioritize what needs to be done immediately, and then move on to the next item once it is done,” she suggests. “Allowing yourself to focus too far into the future will cause you more stress in the moment.”

If you do feel like stress or fear are on the verge of overwhelming you, Dr. Sileo encourages you to take a moment and let yourself feel those emotions for a set amount of time each day. “Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, then use that time to speak your worries aloud, with or without a listener, or write out every last thing you’re angry about,” he says. “When the time is up, stop. This can help you keep strong feelings separate from the usual stream of thoughts and reactions, so you are free to do what needs to be done the rest of the time.”

Creating a Support System

“During a hospitalization, you are your child’s support system and it’s important for you, as the parent, to have your own support system,” stresses Taylor-Grace Freiberg, MS, CCLS, a certified child life specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “From my experience in working with parents of hospitalized children, it seems like the biggest form of support is to have someone who is available to listen, either outside or within the hospital.”

If you need more hands-on support, such as help with other children at home, don’t wait for people to offer it, says Dr. Sileo. “Tell people what you need. They cannot read your mind. Teach them to ask, ‘how can I be there for you?’ instead of giving advice or jumping in with solutions.” Seeking out the exact support you need—whether that’s a babysitter, a hug or an understanding ear—can go far towards reducing feelings of loneliness and worry.

“We know from various studies that support systems help decrease feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, stress and depression,” Dr. Sileo adds. “Support groups can often be found in hospitals or in local community centers.” If you don’t feel comfortable in a large group setting, Dr. Sileo says that the most important thing is to avoid being alone. “You may want to retreat to your room, crawl into bed and cover your head,” he explains. “This may be a sign that you are feeling depressed and you need to reach out for help.”

For practical supports, such as local lodging if your child is hospitalized far from home, talk to the hospital staff. “Where I work, our social workers connect people to our local Ronald McDonald House, which provides overnight accommodations, meals and support for families of critically ill children receiving care in our hospital,” says Freiberg. “We also have a list of local hotels that offer special rates for the families of our patients.”

Making the Hospital More Comfortable

“Whenever my son has to be admitted to the hospital, we make sure to bring a photo of my late mother which hangs above his bed at home and his ‘Get Well’ elephant stuffed animal that belonged to her,” shares Plesz. Experts agree that transforming the hospital room with little pieces of home is the best way to make children feel more comfortable.

Other ideas: The child’s pillow or nightlight and a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, toy or book. Dr. Sileo also encourages parents to ask if children can sleep in their own pajamas (as opposed to hospital garb), what play opportunities will be available and where they can play, if and when siblings, relatives and friends can come to visit and if they will be sharing a room with another child.

Working with Doctors

Even though they are the ones providing life-saving care to your little one, communicating with your child’s team of doctors can be stressful, overwhelming or even embarrassing if you don’t understand what they are talking about. But there are concrete steps you can take to assuage these feelings.

First, Dr. Sileo recommends learning the names, roles and specialties of each member of your child’s medical team. “There can be many different professionals in a hospital setting. It’s important to learn who everyone is and who does what.”

From there, never assume that your child’s doctors can’t or don’t want to speak to you in a way you understand. “It is our goal to create a unique experience tailored to each family’s specific needs,” explains Freiberg. “We encourage parents to identify their learning style, such as if they are information seeking, a visual learner, or if they want to hear information in more than one way. We want to make sure we are communicating effectively and finding the best ways to deliver information.”

One way to ensure you don’t miss anything: Enlist another adult (not a co-parent) as a note taker during meetings with doctors. “When you are stressed, it is difficult to talk, listen and write at the same time,” Dr. Sileo says. “Have your helper write down information about medications, dosages and frequency, names and phone numbers of other specialists and any other important directions.”

Asking Questions

It’s very common to come up with questions and concerns throughout the day and then forget to bring them up while your child’s doctors are in the room. That’s why Plesz suggests writing everything down, even if it seems repetitive. “Then when you’re speaking to your child’s doctors, read the questions from your list,” she says. “Often, you’ll find that several of your questions will have already been answered by the ones that you have already asked, but writing them down and reading them off allows you to ask everything you want to.”

If you don’t want to keep a notebook on hand, use the Notes app on your phone. And for your most important inquiries, Freiberg suggests utilizing the whiteboard in your child’s room. That way, even if you forget to bring it up, it’s on the wall for their medical team to see and address.

To confirm that you’re understanding specific instructions correctly, Dr. Sileo recommends repeating them back to the doctor in your own words instead of just asking for them a second time. This way, you’re 100% sure you know what to do, plus you’ll help your doctor learn how best to explain things to you in the future.

Preparing for Changes

When a young child requires an extended hospital stay, that phase often begins with a great deal of uncertainty—and that uncertainty may still exist when it’s time to go back home. The one thing you can count on, at least in the short term, is that your life and your child’s are likely about to change. In preparing for such changes, experts stress the importance of honesty.

“Having truthful conversations about how life may or may not change will help maintain trust and will give your child the opportunity to find ways to cope,” Freiberg says. Plesz echoes the sentiment. “Kids need to know that they will be loved and supported through anything. Knowing that you are there with them and that you are scared too will help normalize their feelings and make them more confident and prepared to handle the future.”

As far as concrete steps that can prepare you for the transition home from the hospital, Dr. Sileo stresses the importance of making sure you understand your child’s aftercare plan in its entirety. “Don’t be afraid to ask for written instructions in a language you can understand,” he says. “Get phone numbers and emails of personnel whom you can contact if you find yourself or your child overwhelmed.”

The bottom line: It’s okay to feel stressed, overwhelmed and even fearful when your child needs to be hospitalized. But there are steps you can take to make things more manageable for you and your little one that will help you both make it through.

 

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