A Parent's Perspective on Child Life

While child life specialists primarily work with children, we know that they impact much more than just the child. Whether directly or indirectly, siblings, parents, grandparents, and other family members are significantly affected by the work of child life specialists. We wanted to hear about the effects of Child Life from a lesser-heard perspective: the parent. As a mom of two young daughters, here is Christina's story:

 Child life specialist Marlee plays with and distracts patient before a procedure

Child life specialist Marlee plays with and distracts patient before a procedure

When my youngest daughter was three, she did what a lot of little kids do--put something where it’s not supposed to go. She jammed a tree bud into her ear. When urgent care couldn't remove it, we were sent to the emergency room. She was terrified and wouldn't hold still even for the ENT (ear nose throat doctor) to examine her. Pressed for time, the ENT ordered her to be strapped to a papoose board. When she struggled, screaming, the ENT had to put her under anesthesia in the operating room to safely use tweezers on her ear. A procedure we thought would take minutes turned into an 18-hour-long ordeal. It was late on a Friday and child life was extremely busy in the ER, so we couldn't have support. This was the most traumatizing experience for my daughter, and for me. To this day, she still has anxiety surrounding healthcare visits.

Because we had that unfortunate experience with my daughter, I truly believe that it’s critical for hospitals to have child life teams, and now I always ask for a child life specialist whenever possible. Even “simple” needle-related medical procedures can be so traumatizing for kids when you think about how many vaccines and blood draws even healthy kids get. I also believe it’s critical for child life to be present in radiology, where their interventions could directly impact the need for sedation during scans.

The biggest difference child life has made for my children is trust. The child life specialists showed them that it’s okay to trust someone in a hospital. That adults in scrubs will tell you the truth and treat you like you and your feelings are important. Child life showed my kids respect and empowered them to participate positively in situations where they felt like they had no control. This respect gave them the assurance that they were important and heard, which is vital in getting their participation in procedures.

As a parent, child life specialists greatly reduced the feeling that I was powerless to help.

As a parent, child life specialists greatly reduced the feeling that I was powerless to help. By watching them, I could see how coping strategies worked, and by them shouldering some of the responsibility for helping my child through this journey, it alleviated some of the guilt I carried as a parent who didn’t know what to do. I've also learned a lot about the power of distraction and diversion. More importantly, I've learned about how they listen and communicate at a level that is appropriate for each child. They never lie, they earn trust, and I've learned that respecting my children with the truth, no matter how difficult, is the first step in building the trust needed to get them through the healthcare journey effectively.

 Child life specialist Jennifer talks to patient and develops a relationship

Child life specialist Jennifer talks to patient and develops a relationship

When I think of my children establishing relationships with their health and healthcare providers based on these early experiences, I realize how important patient experience is, with child life being a huge part of that picture. I don't want my children to grow up to be adults that avoid hospitals and providers because of fear, anxiety, or past trauma. Thankfully, every children's hospital I've been in takes a lot of care in creating a welcoming and child-friendly environment. Where they go the extra mile is to accommodate sibling visits and the well-being of other family members and caregivers. When a hospital invests in new and innovative ways of engaging children, it shows me their willingness to push the boundaries of what is expected with patient experience.

My advice to other parents and caregivers is this: Ask. Every time you bring a child to a hospital for a test, a treatment, or an emergency, ask for a child life specialist. If you’ve experienced the benefits of child life, tell the hospital and tell the world. Write it in on your HCAHPS survey, fill out a comment card, or make positive comments on social media. Call attention to this incredibly valuable profession!

Rachel MartindaleComment