Your child may have lots of questions about his or her operation; be prepared with the best answers. What and when you tell your child will depend on age, emotional maturity and coping abilities.
When to Talk to Your Child
Infants and toddlers
Very young children need little preparation. They do, however, quickly pick up on parents’ emotions. Your confidence will help reassure your child. At this age, children have little concept of time, so don’t begin talking about the hospital until a day or two before the operation.
Preschool and young school-age children
Talk to your child about going to the hospital three to five days before the operation. It’s important to give your child time to think it over and ask questions. At this age, you’ll want to be sure your child knows it is not his or her fault and he or she will feel better after the operation.
Older school-age children and adolescents
Discuss the operation with your older child as soon as it is scheduled. Talk to your child again about four to five days prior, answering any questions he or she might have. At this age, let your child make as many decisions about the procedure as possible. Also, respect your child’s need for some control over who is told about his or her condition and procedure.
How to Talk to Your Child
If your child asks a question and you don’t know the answer, tell him or her you don’t know, but you will try to find the answer.
Use familiar words
For younger children, use nonthreatening words your child understands. For example, say “sore” instead of “pain.” When describing an “anesthesiologist,” you might say “sleep doctor.” Say “small opening” instead of “incision.” At the same time, respect that older children, especially teens, may be offended by euphemisms.
Talk about how the operation will help your child
Let them know they will feel better after the operation and that, while they recover, activities and school can be scheduled around their needs.
Let your child know you will be at the hospital the whole time and you will take him or her home afterward.
More ideas and activities for your family
- Tell your child to bring a favorite toy, book, security blanket or other treasured item. Older kids may want to bring books or hand-held games.
- Let your child make choices before and after the operation, when appropriate. For example, ask your child to pick out which clothes to pack for the hospital or which toy to bring.
- Encourage your child to draw pictures as a way to express feelings and thoughts about the operation. Ask them what they were thinking about while they drew.
- Suggest that your older child keep a journal of thoughts and feelings about the surgical experience.
- Include your child in planning homecoming activities, such as a movie night or a celebration with favorite snacks.
- Encourage your child to play doctor and talk about the upcoming operation. Use a doll or stuffed animal as the patient. This type of play may give you further insight into your child’s thoughts and feelings.
- Practice deep breathing exercises, alphabet or counting games or squeeze your child’s hand right before surgery or to distract from any discomfort afterward.