Child Life Therapy: How to Support Your Child

A father playing a game with his daughter as she is sitting up in a hospital bed.
Parents will find support from our Child Life Program specialists to find ways to help their child adjust to being in the hospital. Our team can offer tips and activities suited to your child’s age.

Surgery and staying in the hospital can be stressful for you and your child. Your care team will talk with you about how to ease anxiety and help your child adjust.

Strategies may include:

  • Knowing what to expect.
  • Maintaining normal schedules.
  • Relaxing with deep breathing, music, soft lights and blankets.
  • Imaginative play, storytelling and reading books.

Supporting your child

Children often feel anxious about the unfamiliar people, places and procedures in the hospital.

Helping your child cope with stress and feel more comfortable can make your stay and treatments easier. Our child life specialists can help you find the words to explain what’s happening in a way your child will understand. They can also show you ways to distract, comfort and relax your child.

Preparing yourself

Gathering as much information as you can and arranging backup from friends and relatives are good ways to prepare yourself to support your child. You can:

  • Talk with your child’s care team about what will happen.
  • Ask questions about any concerns.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat and sleep regularly.
  • Ask family and friends to give you breaks.

Infants

Common issues:

  • Separation from parents
  • Many different caregivers
  • Strange sights, sounds and smells
  • Disrupted routines
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Day and night confusion

How you can help:

  • Talk with your care team about your baby’s routines, including sleep and eating habits.
  • Make sure you, your baby and your family are well-rested.
  • Bring your baby’s favorite blanket, stuffed animal or other security items.
  • Play soothing music and dim the lights.
  • Plan for at least one family member to be with your baby as much as possible, so she always has a familiar touch, voice and smile.
  • Swaddle your baby in a blanket.
  • Stroke your baby gently.
  • Give your baby a pacifier.
  • Play soft music or sing

Link: How Infants and Toddlers React to Trauma and How to Help, Association of Child Life Professionals

A cabinet with stuffed animals in it.
The child life team has an array of props and toys to comfort and entertain young patients and their siblings.

Toddlers and preschoolers

Common issues:

  • Thinking they are in trouble or being punished
  • Blurring of imagination and reality 
  • Fear of:
    • Being alone or away from family and home
    • Needles, shots and pain
    • The dark
    • Strangers and unfamiliar places

How you can help:

  • Explain why your child is in the hospital.
  • Answer questions in a simple, honest way.
  • Ask your child to tell you what’s happening. Correct any misunderstandings.
  • Emphasize that being in the hospital is not a punishment. Explain that doctors and nurses are helpers.
  • Read books with your child about children going to the hospital.
  • Allow your child to help pack his suitcase.
  • Bring favorite blankets, stuffed animals and photos of relatives and pets.
  • Sit your child on your lap during the procedure.
  • Blow bubbles or pinwheels.
  • Look at a ViewMaster or videos.
  • Read books that make noise or pop up.

Books:

  • “Curious George Goes to the Hospital,” by Margret and H. A. Rey
  • “Going to the Hospital,” by Anna Civardi
  • “A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital,” Random House/Children's Television Workshop 
  • “Pooh Plays Doctor,” by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld 
  • “One Bear in the Hospital,” by Caroline Bucknall 
  • “Going to the Hospital,” by Fred Rogers 
  • “Franklin Goes to the Hospital,” by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark
  • “Corduroy Goes to the Doctor,” by Don Freeman and Lisa McCue
  • “Little Critter: My Trip to the Hospital,” by Mercer Mayer

Links:

A little girl in a hospital bed plays with a toy that involves a board with blocks of different shapes.

School age

Common issues:

  • Being away from school and friends
  • Thinking they have been bad or are being punished
  • Anxiety about body changes or injuries
  • Fear of waking up during surgery
  • Loss of control or privacy
  • Fear of needles, shots and pain

How you can help:

  • Talk to your child about what to expect at the hospital.
  • Ask your child to tell you what is going to happen, and correct any misunderstandings.
  • Read books with your child about going to the hospital.
  • Tell your child she has not done anything wrong and is not being punished.
  • Explain the benefits of the surgery. For example, "After your knee has healed, you will be able to play soccer again."
  • Encourage your child's friends to visit the hospital, to call or to send cards and emails.
  • Hold hands.
  • Take deep breaths together.
  • Distract your child with books, toys, videos and counting backward.
  • Take an imaginary trip.
  • Affirm your child’s feelings: “I know this is hard, and I know you can do it.”

Books:

  • “The Hospital Book,” by James Howe
  • “Let's Talk About Going to the Hospital,” by Marianne Johnston
  • “What's Inside a Hospital?” by Sharon Gordon

Links:

Adolescence

Common issues:

  • Loss of independence, privacy and control
  • Being away from school and friends
  • Reluctance to say that they don’t understand
  • Body changes or injuries
  • What others will think about them
  • Fear of:
    • Surgery and its risks
    • Pain
    • The unknown
    • Waking up during surgery

How you can help:

  • Allow your teen to help make care decisions.
  • Encourage him to make a list of questions for the care team.
  • Be honest when answering questions.
  • Explain the care plan in different ways.
  • Bring favorite items from home, such as music, videos, photos, books and journals.
  • Ask your teen if she would like visitors. Encourage her to stay in contact with her friends by email, text, phone or social media. 

You can help your teen:

  • Find a comfortable position.
  • Take part in care decisions.
  • Have some control over the experience
  • Listen to music or watch a video
  • Do breathing exercises
  • By affirming his or her feelings: “I know this is hard, and I know you can do it.”

Links:

Learn more

The OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Family Resource Center has children’s books and resources on health, child development and coping with illness. It is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays in the Doernbecher lobby.

Book: “Your Child in the Hospital: A Practical Guide for Parents,” by Nancy Keene

Free kit for cancer patients: If your child is being treated for cancer, you can order a free kit  from the American Childhood Cancer Organization.

Links:

For families

Call 503-418-5388 for more information.

Refer a patient

  • Call 503-346-0644 to seek provider-to-provider advice.