Child Psychology

Hospitals can be a scary place, even for adults. For children, apprehension of unknown environments can greatly intensify fear. When children think of hospitals, they can be overwhelmed by thoughts of needles, unfamiliar noises and smells, strangers, and feeling "sick" in a place that just isn't home. Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital and Park Nicollet Clinic are reducing these perceived fears through the Child-Life program.

"As hospital stays get shorter and faster, someone needs to be there for the children," Julie Zarambo, child-life specialist at Methodist Hospital, says. "They need explanations of what is going to happen and someone to help them navigate procedures," she adds. Today, child-life specialists have evolved into a high-profile, vital role, which helps cushion the social and psychological impact hospital visits have on children and their families, look optimind.

Understanding a child's needs

Zarambo's education in therapeutic recreation and child psychology, and her extensive experience working with children, has given her insight to truly understand children's minds and needs. According to Zarambo, the impact of a one-night hospital stay is not as great as extended stays. "Providing honest information to children before and during their stays can help lessen the impact, regardless of the duration," she says.

The child-life specialist tries to make sure children understand what and why things are happening to them and provide ways to help them cope with procedures. The specialist also provides children with the opportunity to play as much as possible, because, as Zarambo says, "playing is how children express their emotions and learn about their environment." Whether it is free-time play or educational play, children's actions show what they are feeling and thinking.

Explanations, choices

Explaining processes helps reduce children's fear. "For example, children can be terrified of the idea of having an IV," Zarambo says. "We explain the needle will poke through the skin like a little straw, then work to give their body drinks," Zarambo says. "We show them the 'straw' and let them look at it and touch it. Kids can relate to this and it often relieves some of the anxiety they are experiencing," she adds.

"By offering children choices during their care, we help them feel in control of their situations," Zarambo says. Even the little things, like asking which arm to look at first, or which color Popsicle they want, make a big difference. Children like to have some control over the situation.

"Part of my role is to create a warm, friendly environment," Zarambo says. "We decorate with themes of the season. It is reassuring for children to see things inside the hospital they normally see at home. So, we try to keep it part of their life here, too." Another way Zarambo keeps the hospital experience fun, warm-hearted and less serious is by moving children around in a wagon rather than a wheelchair.

The family's role

Time permitting, Zarambo typically meets with families before children are admitted, to give them a tour and answer questions. "Without knowledge about what a hospital actually does, children could associate it as the place where grandpa went and never came home," she says. By completing a tour, children are able to see and learn how hospitals help people. It helps them feel more comfortable and confident about their upcoming stay.

Bringing items for children that remind them of home is highly recommended. "Some common things children like are their favorite DVDs or CDs," Zarambo says. "Families should pack fun things their children like to do or favorite possessions that keep normalcy in their lives."

Compassionate care

A child-life specialist also keeps siblings informed so they don't feel neglected, particularly if their brother or sister has a long-term stay. "If brothers and sisters are unable to come in, we teach parents how to explain the situation in simple terms. We even take pictures, so siblings know exactly what to expect and are less scared."

Hospital visits do not have to be intimidating for children. Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital and Park Nicollet Clinic offer well-researched, educated and compassionate care to help kids prepare for and control difficult emotions. "By supporting their hospital visits, we can help children have positive experiences and better cope with future events," Zarambo says.