Contrary to many beliefs, children are not just mini-adults. Children of all ages are continuously developing physically, psychologically and socially. Whether they are 6 or 16, they react differently than adults when confronted with challenges and changes in their routines. This is especially true when children enter the hospital. Because they may not fully understand what is happening to them, they may become resistant to the care offered. At the same time, family members may be anxious and may unknowingly add to the child’s fears.
Let’s explore some ways to help school-aged children and adolescents, and their families, adjust to a hospital stay. Additional information on this topic can be reviewed in our free eBook: A Nurse’s Guide to Keeping Pediatric Hospital Stays Pleasant: From School Age Through Adolescents.
School Aged Children
Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are considered school age. Generally speaking, they are learning socially accepted behavior and enjoy playing games and reading. When hospitalized, they may become apprehensive and anxious because of fear of pain that they may experience, or unfamiliar circumstances. To make them more comfortable, you may try the following techniques:
- Explain procedures in a way that they will understand. Playing with medical equipment or watching age-appropriate medical videos can help reduce their anxieties.
- Be patient with them, especially when their routines have been disrupted or when they are having a difficult time with new restrictions.
- Because pre-teens are very aware of their changing body, give them privacy when possible - especially when changing their clothes or bathing.
- Distraction items like games and videos can help keep their mind off their illness or painful procedures.
The biggest challenge when working with hospitalized adolescents and teenagers aged 13 to 18 is their loss of control and independence over their environment. These restrictions on their everyday lives can result in anger and moodiness. Here are some tips to make a teenager’s hospital stay more comfortable:
- When possible, have adolescents stay in the same area so that they don’t feel like they are being treated “as babies” surrounded by younger patients.
- Give them as much privacy as possible. Teens like to talk with their friends without adults “intruding.” They like to bathe and change clothes without interruptions.
- Treat the teenager with respect. Talk with them about their life and what makes them happy. Ask them about school activities. These simple tasks may increase the trust that the teen has in you, thus increasing the likelihood that they will follow your suggestions for their care.
- Teens are still minors and as much as they want to have full control, they can’t. Even though their parents have the final say, involve teens in discussions about their care whenever possible.
Parents of Older Pediatric Patients
Parents of school-age children and adolescents may feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to talk to their child about new diagnoses or restrictions. If possible, enlist the help of a child life specialist who is trained to work with both children and adults. Here are some other suggestions to help parents cope with their child’s hospitalization:
- Explain to parents that the calmer they are, the more likely their child will remain calm.
- Ask the parents to be patient with their children. Fear, frustration and anxiety may cause the child to act out in unacceptable ways. Without encouraging parents to accept undesirable behavior, help them realize this is a normal response to the upheaval the child may feel.
- Encourage parents to be honest with their children. Once children understand what to expect, they may become more cooperative.
- Stress that it is important that their teenager be included in discussions so they feel part of the team and are more open to following the plan of care.
- Remind parents to take care of themselves – that will benefit both them and their child.
The tools and guidelines reviewed here may be of assistance as you help school-age children and teenagers, along with their family members, cope with the frustration, fear and loss of control that accompanies unplanned medical situations. These suggestions can help create a positive and healing environment, which is the best atmosphere for restoring these pediatric patients to their optimal level of mental and physical health.
To learn more about coping with school-age and adolescent hospital stays, click here to download the full eBook for free.