Children's Hospital Colorado

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think Like a Child Life Specialist at Home

Child life specialists are trained in using play, recreation and age-appropriate educational and coping techniques to help children and families while they are in the hospital. Here are some tips from the experts to try at home.

1. Help! My child won’t take medicine without a fight.

A boy in a light blue hospital gown blows on a toy pinwheel while a woman with long brown hair watches.

Set a medication-taking routine. Avoid asking, “Do you want to take your medicine?” because they will always say no. Turn off any distractions and offer choices like: “Would you rather take this with chocolate milk or water?” and “Would you rather take the blue pill first or the yellow one?” Explain to your child that they have many choices to make, but taking their medication is not one of those choices.

If a medication tastes bad, have your child suck on a popsicle to numb their taste buds first. Or, have them take a sip of water or juice first, place the pill in their mouth, then have them drink more to mask the bad taste.

2. How can I help my child calm down when they are in (non-emergency) pain?

Deep breathing is one of the most useful skills to teach your child. It can be used to manage pain, calm test anxiety and to help them refocus in a lot of different situations. Child life specialists often use metaphors to teach deep breathing. Ask your child to pretend they’re “smelling a dandelion or flower” for a deep breath in, then have them “blow some bubbles” for a deep breath out. Repetitive deep breathing will not take your child’s pain away, but it can help them cope with it.

3. My child has a lot of anxiety about going to the doctor. How can I help them get through an appointment?

Just like adults, children become anxious when they don’t know what to expect. Prepare your child by telling them about the appointment— younger children do better with shorter notice while older children need more time to process. Tell your child what to expect during the appointment— who they will see, what will happen and what the room will look like.

If they’ve had a negative encounter previously and associate the doctor’s office with feelings of fear, practice a doctor’s appointment beforehand. Walk them through checking in, waiting, stepping on a scale to get their weight, sitting on an exam table and having the doctor listen to their heart. Or, call your doctor ahead of time and ask what they anticipate will happen at this appointment. Ultimately, it’s always best to be honest with your child.

Find more parenting resources from Children's Colorado.