In the Fall of 2017, I completed my internship at a Pediatric Unit within an Adult Hospital. Although the pediatric population was our primary focus, we also provided support to adults who were struggling to talk to kids about hospital issues. One of the main things we did was work with parents to explain a new diagnosis to their children. If the parent had just been diagnosed with cancer or needed an organ transplant, we would often meet with the families to talk more about what these changes would mean.
You could probably define our main job as translation. Parents know their children best so most of them knew what to say but they struggled with how to explain medical terms like cancer, chemo, etc. That’s where Child Life’s developmentally appropriate experience and knowledge of the medical environment was needed. We would chat with parents about their children and what they’re like and then suggest ways to define big and scary words like cancer.
We also provided affirmation. With many of the families that I met with, the parents knew what they wanted to say and how to do it but they were unsure if they were “doing it right.” When we explained to them that they know their child best and their desire to be honest with the children is most important, families calmed down. It was interesting to see how helpful it was for them to have someone else say, “Yes, you’re doing it right.”
Obviously there were so many resources we provided for the families. For the parents, we gave them Kathleen McCue’s book How to Help Children with a Parent’s Serious Illness. This book is an excellent resource that provided families with practical guidance for talking to children about illness and also death. Because it’s broken up into smaller categories, parents could focus on the area that they felt they needed help with and they didn’t have to read the whole book. Some general books that we provided families with for their children were When Someone Has a Very Serious Illness and A Terrible Thing Happened.
For the children, we would share diagnosis specific books for the families about whatever illness they were facing. There are so many books available for children about illness and the medical setting, but they aren’t easily found in your local library. As Child Life Specialists, we knew resources that were available and we could share them with the families.
Finally, I loved to give families Worry Eaters or give them instructions to make their own worry eater. What’s great about Worry Eaters is that it encourages kids to write down their questions and fears but they can share those thoughts when they feel ready or when the caregiver is ready. It often takes some pressure off both the parent and the child. There was one family that I met during my internship who I gave Worry Eaters to mom to give to her two school aged boys. For the rest of dad’s hospitalization, they carried those Worry Eaters with them wherever they went. We invited the boys to many hospital events that were happening for our pediatric patients, and they brought their Worry Eaters to every event.
Do you work in a setting where you help adults talk to kids about overwhelming topics? I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments below!