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Talking About Medical Procedures with Your Child

May 09, 2023
By Mara R. Mauze, PhD, ABPP

As many of you know, a student in our sweet Acorn community is in the hospital, awaiting a heart transplant.  As our community supports, prays, and loves him and his family, we recognize that many of his friends and classmates are hearing questions and asking about medical situations they don’t understand. While most surgeries that children face are much more minor, we wanted to provide some tips and guidance on how to talk to children about surgeries or medical interventions.

1. Use simple, developmentally appropriate language.  Medical jargon is inherently complicated and can be confusing for adults, let alone children.  Use simple language your child can understand.  For example, you could say, “remember how your friend was tired sometimes and couldn’t come to school?  His heart is tired from working so hard and so the doctors want to give him a new one that will be stronger and let him run and play more.” 

2. Encourage your child to come to you with questions. Children may hear things from their friends or from other adults in their lives that they don’t understand or that are incorrect.  Encourage your child to come to you with any questions or concerns they have about things they have heard or learned. This gives you an opportunity to correct or explore with them what they have heard.

3. Answer questions as truthfully and honestly as you can. As adults, we often try to sugar coat things so children don’t worry.  Be honest and truthful while still focusing on your child’s developmental level.  For example, if your child asks if a procedure will cause pain to a friend or loved one, be honest. “Yes, the surgery can cause pain, but the doctors will give George medicine to make him sleepy, so he won’t feel the surgery. When he wakes up, they will give him medicine to help the pain be less.”

4. Normalize your child’s feelings.  Children may have lots of feelings about this situation, ranging from curiosity to fear or anxiety about their friend or even their own health. Normalize their feelings and let them know that it’s okay to be worried or afraid.  If they express fear about their own health, remind them that they are healthy and that most children don’t go through what their friend is going through. Use this as an opportunity to identify ways to love this friend and his family during this challenging time.

5. Talk about things your child can do to help support a friend or relative.  “Emiliano might be in the hospital for awhile.  Should we draw some pictures or pick out some activities to send him?”  Alternatively, “once he gets home, he might be tired and uncomfortable for awhile.  Let’s find a night we can drop dinner off to his family.”

6. Remind your child that doctors and medical care are there to help. Use normative experiences like pediatrician well visits or dental check-ups to remind your child that doctors and nurses are there to help.  Let them know that some doctors and nurses work only with children because they are experts on children and making children feel better.

7. If you don’t know an answer to a question, let your child know.  Children look to the adults in their lives as trusted authorities. If your child asks you a question you can’t answer or asks a question you’re not sure how to answer, tell them you don’t know but you’ll see if you can find out. This buys you some time to figure out the answer or determine how best to answer a difficult question.  Be sure to circle back to your child and let them know when you have an answer for them.  Be prepared that your child may ask some difficult questions, like whether their friend will die.  This is an uncomfortable, but typical question.  A possible answer is to say, “I don’t know.  We really hope not and that is why he is in the hospital, so the doctors can keep an eye on him and give him the best medicine and treatment they can to keep him strong.”  

8. Follow your child’s lead.  Some children will have a lot of questions and want a lot of information.  Others will ask questions here or there.  Follow your child’s lead and let them know you are always happy to answer questions or talk to them anytime they want.

Children find comfort and reassurance from knowing that they are safe and that the people they love and care about are being taken care of. As parents and caregivers, you are uniquely positioned to provide this reassurance. If you feel like your child seems very worried or more anxious than you feel they should be, reach out to your pediatrician for support and other resources.