Life in the Hospital Lane - Assisting Healing
Wed May 3rd 2023
Keeping Your Child Calm and Occupied
Nobody wants to be unwell for longer than they need to be. When you think about a period of time in hospital, or a long stretch of sickness at home, one of the immediate wishes is to ‘Get Well Soon’. You might conjure up images of homemade chicken soup, plenty of sleep, and handwritten cards from friends to assist with healing. These are tried and true remedies, but there are several things, particularly when it comes to children, that can aid in keeping stress levels low, and maintaining an environment where they are occupied and calm. When the mind is calm and not overburdened with stress - the body can get on with the physical healing that needs to be done.
So how do you do this? One hour seems like a lifetime within hospital walls. Wakeful nights with younger children are just exhausting! Be encouraged that being present is one of the primary sources of strength and support for a sick child. Recovery from a health issue or recurring medical event happens within the context of family - so supporting a child in hospital is the most important thing you can do for them. Having that family foundation, that known, constant love is crucial for their peace of mind, and in turn vital for them to heal and recover physically. The very reason their face lights up when you enter the hospital room is because you are there. After visits from doctors, nurses, specialists, and therapists throughout the day, your face and presence mean so much, it’s their home away from home. The same goes for healing and recovery at home - knowing that you’re available and near, relieves any insecurities they may have, and enables their bodies to keep fighting and gain strength. Whilst it’s not always possible with the demands of life and juggling work and family commitments, make an effort to check in regularly and reassure them of your love, care, and attention. One of the biggest things parents and caregivers can do is provide their child with the opportunity to build a secure relationship and attachment. When your child feels secure, the bond you have makes them feel safe, even when they are in a different environment (hospital) or with other people (doctors etc). The great thing about attachment is that a child will internalize the feeling of safety and security that the parent offers them, so they can carry those feelings with them wherever they go.
Developing this attachment begins from a very young age, and although parents want to try their best and do all of this ‘perfectly’ - that puts too much pressure on families and in most cases turns out to be unhelpful. Instead of responding to your child every single time and on cue, what is important is that the child develops a level of trust that you will be there consistently. In other words, do your best..in life or situations where things can get very busy with routines and schedules - you can only be in one place, children understand this, so you don‘t have to be perfect!
Family time is also essential for children in hospital, or children recovering at home. Having family around can help them to feel more secure and comforted. It can also provide a distraction from their worries and give them something to look forward to. Just as the health issue or medical event has happened within the context of family, so too, the healing takes place within the family context. Keep an eye on very sick children, and monitor visiting times, as too much of a good thing can also tire them out and is exhausting at a time when rest is needed. Ensure that family visitors are also well, and not spreading colds, flu, or infections.
An often missed, yet essential item of the ‘healing toolbox’ is play. It’s often said within children’s hospitals that ‘play is the work of children’. Play is a vital part of childhood, a through play, children begin to learn and understand the world around them. Play develops creativity through imagination and is important for healthy brain development. Through play, children can imagine worlds and surroundings, build confidence, conquer fears, and solve problems. When children are hospitalized or have recurring medical issues, they may feel a sense of loss and isolation caused by the sudden break from their normal routine and environment. Because their brains process the world differently from adults, they may not be able to describe how they feel in a way that their parent or caregiver understands. Play is a crucial outlet, to be with their thoughts. They can process their emotions, express how they are feeling and assert an element of control over what might otherwise feel like a very unknown and interrupted period of time. Play can also be a fun distraction, whether it’s board games or video games, it can help to lift their spirits and keep them occupied. It also provides a means of social interaction with other children. Whether it be siblings, other children in hospital, or friends - in small doses, this social interaction is a great boost for their confidence, sense of ‘normality’, and well-being.
Reading is another great way to help children stay calm and occupied during recovery. Books provide a form of escapism and can help to distract from any worries or discomfort they are feeling. Reading has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as provide children with knowledge and a sense of achievement. There is a special Literary Programme set up in a Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles which provides unique reading services to patients and their families. They see many stories like ‘Stella’ who was admitted to Hospital for treatment following a car accident. In the same accident ‘Stella’ also suffered severe emotional pain. She was about 10 years old at the time, very afraid, and had stopped speaking to anyone after what she had experienced. Through the reading program at the Hospital, specific books were selected for her, and those taking care of her began reading to her daily. After a few days, ‘Stella’ started to open up about her fears and troubles. Then, after a few more days of reading, she felt able to talk to her family about what was troubling her. Through reading books, she learned that it was okay to communicate exactly how she was feeling. Talking things out gave her hope, lessened her fears and she began feeling settled and happy again. She was soon discharged from the hospital and continued reading at home in her spare time. Reading gives children the courage to face tough situations, it helps them handle their fears. It helps to distract their minds from worries they have and provides the bonus of building literacy and language skills at a time when they may be missing time in the classroom.
Within the same realm of reading, there is art, crafts, and music. Such activities provide a creative outlet. Like reading, these activities help to keep children calm and relaxed - thus giving the body every opportunity to heal physically. Your child may already have a favourite craft, or it might be a good opportunity to learn a new hobby. There are plenty of ideas on youtube for easy crafts that don’t require too many resources. Or if they’re more of a puzzler - grab a crossword book or a word search - this will keep their mind ticking over and pass the time doing something they enjoy.
Music has been shown to reduce stress, help manage pain, and provide a distraction; all of which can help when recovering and getting back to good health. Whether it's on a device or directly through headphones, studies have shown that music can also help improve medical outcomes for complex medical conditions. Listening to music with others can also strengthen the bond between families and care providers, creating a very positive atmosphere for everyone!
Then there’s the ‘favourites’ category. A favourite toy, a favourite teddy bear, a favourite food, a favourite tv show or movie - when you’re in hospital, or recovering at home, a ‘favourite’ can provide much-needed comfort and distraction from the discomfort, pain and sometime loneliness that comes from a long recovery. They can provide comfort if you’re feeling scared or overwhelmed. A much-loved tv show or movie can also provide important moments of laughter and joy during a hospital stay.
Staying connected is really important for children and teens, and taking the time to send a message, write an email, set up a video call, or perhaps even pen a letter is a sure way to keep up relationships. Checking in with friends reminds your child of life ‘outside the hospital walls’ and gives them the incentive to rest and recover as they look forward to being with their friends in person again. Hearing from their friends is a huge boost to their day, and provides them with other things to think about, rather than worrying solely about their situation. Encourage interaction where possible and see how it brightens their day!
There are many ways to help children in hospital heal well, and these are just a few ways in which you can help them stay calm and occupied to aid in their recovery. Ultimately, being an active participant in your child’s recovery is key to understanding what works, and what doesn’t work. You can be proud of your child’s strength and courage. It’s hard to see your child unwell, but they are in great hands with hospital staff, and with your care at home. Keep your strength and focus on taking it one day at a time and be encouraged by the great job you’re doing!