How to Cope with Children’s Anxiety in the Hospital

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Children’s anxiety in the hospital setting affects care and safety—most critically, whether they need to be sedated for tests and procedures. Strategies to reduce their anxiety can have big impacts on children’s experiences, quality of care, and healthcare costs. The literature reflects that, to be successful, such strategies must be implemented correctly.Some researchers looking at age-appropriate play therapy to help children during hospitalization have found it reduces stress, psychological trauma, anxiety, and behavioral issues.It is a common misconception that the less a child knows going in to a situation, the better.

Many parents report not having shared anything with their child about their pending visit to keep them from feeling afraid. Children are sponges for information!Studies show that children feel less anxious about experiences when they are appropriately prepared. Children are information-seekers. Similarly, to most adults, they feel more in control of a situation when they are given honest information that helps them to know what to expect. The most important thing to remember when preparing your child for a new experience is to be honest, but also to give them information in a way that is appropriate for their age.

Below are some examples of honest but less-threatening phrases we use to talk to kids about medical experiences that can be stressful for kids:

Injections/Blood Draws = A small poke that might feel like a quick pinchTeeth scraper = a silver tool the dentist uses to clean your teeth.

Blood pressure cuff = a soft band that will give your arm a tight hugStethoscope = a microphone to help the doctors hear your heart

Anesthesia = a special medicine that helps you sleep so you won’t feel or hear anything while the dentist cleans your teethstudies show that children relax more quickly upon completion of a procedure and/or stay relaxed for longer leading up to a procedure when they are engaged in a preferred activity.

Taking their attention away from the environment or procedure is a great strategy, and helping them to re-focus on that activity when they start to seem stressed can help to deescalate a child before they get too anxious.

Did you know that children feel most vulnerable when they are lying flat on their backs? While there are certainly appointments and/or procedures where this can’t be avoided, there are many times when changing your child’s physical orientation can ease their anxiety.As a health care provider , we coach parents to use “comfort positions,” because we know that children feel most comfortable and safe when they are with their caregiver.

Below are some examples of common medical experiences, and the comfort positions that can make these experiences easier for your child.For a thigh or upper arm injection – Have your child sit on the edge of the exam table. Come up in front of them and give them a big bear hug from the front, turning their head to the opposite direction of the shot if the child prefers not to watch.

Remember, some children feel more in control and therefore less anxious when they do watch, so for children ages 3+, always offer them the choice!For a strep test – Hold your child on your lap, with them facing outward. Give them a big bear hug, wrapping your arms tightly around theirs, securing them down in a comfortable and safe way that doesn’t feel restrictive.

For a visit to the dentist – Sit as close to their head as possible and hold their hands, even give them a soothing hand or arm massage if they enjoy it. If they can’t see you while leaning back, having you hold an arm or hand, and even prompting them to squeeze it, ensures them along with your voice that you are still there. You can even have them sit in your lap in the dental chair, if it is okay with the dentist.Experiencing new medical procedures can be a challenge for children, but we know it can be just as hard on parents to see their child anxious or upset. Remind yourself to take deep breaths and remain a calm, reassuring presence for your child.

We hope that these tips and techniques will help you as you tackle new experiences together.

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