Emotional safety looks beyond physical health to incorporate all aspects of a child's unique history, including developmental, emotional and sensory factors that may influence how they react to care environments.
According to Jenaya Gordon, MA, CCLS, NCC, manager of child life at Children’s Colorado, emotional safety should always go together with physical safety. "You can't really separate the two because nobody feels physically safe if they feel emotionally threatened," Gordon explains. "Nobody can heal physically when they're in a state of trauma and fear about the care they're getting.
Gordon helps both team members and parents understand emotional safety, which minimizes distress and discomfort at the doctor — both now and in the future. That’s because adverse or traumatizing medical experiences during childhood can make a person healthcare avoidant later in life. Fortunately, Gordon and her team have a strategic approach to proactive emotional safety measures, which consider the specific needs of each individual child.
When seeking care at Children's Colorado, parents can always request a child life specialist to explain an illness, prepare for a procedure, assist with comfort positioning (a way of holding your child to soothe them during a shot or procedure) or support their child in other ways. Our child life team can also work with your family to establish an adaptive care plan to support children with developmental or behavioral challenges. Adaptive care plans may contain elements like hospital tours, coping plans, photos to illustrate procedures and more.
At home, parents can prepare their child for an upcoming medical experience by being honest and informative. For example, if a child needs to visit their primary care doctor for a vaccination, parents can inform the child a few days beforehand. They might say, “It’s important to keep your body healthy, and part of that is going to the doctor even when we feel well, so they can help us continue to feel great in the future.” Then, as the appointment nears, parents can explain the vaccination procedure step by step, with sensory details, such as “first, you’ll feel cold soap that cleans your skin,” and “next, you’ll feel a poke that lasts less than 20 seconds.”
Additionally, it's helpful to give your child options to make the experience feel more emotionally safe. For example, you can ask them if they’d like to sit on their dad’s lap during the shot and employ a comfort hold to make them feel more at ease. Or, ask if they'd like to look at a book or hold a stuffed animal in the doctor’s office. Involving patients in their own care is an empowering and essential aspect of emotional safety.
"The more families can understand how to advocate for emotionally safe medical care, the better experience they're going to have," Gordon adds.