Child Life Specialist: Your Best Friend at the Doctor’s

Being a kid in a medical environment can be scary and full of unknowns. Unfamiliar equipment, complex medical terminology, and different people providing instructions or asking questions can be overwhelming for kids. Fortunately, the role of child life specialists can help them cope with medical stress and trauma.

Key takeaways:

Role of child life specialists

In short, child life specialists aim to reduce the negative impact of stressful events in healthcare settings for all kids - infants through adolescents. They engage with kids in developmentally appropriate ways by using soothing techniques, therapeutic play, explaining medical diagnoses by translating medical terminology, and more. And, they don’t just work in hospitals. Child life specialists have a broad scope and can work in clinics, community settings, child advocacy organizations, and the military.

Child life specialist credentials include a Bachelor’s degree in fields related to the psychosocial and developmental needs of children and their families, as well as additional coursework, a supervised internship, and a certification test.

Child life specialists – what do they do?

Child life specialists have a deep understanding of how children process and respond to stressful situations and collaborate with both families and medical teams to decrease anxiety. Here are the things that these specialists do.

Help with pain management

Paired with medication, child life specialists can offer pain management strategies before, during, and after painful procedures. Strategies could include distraction, positioning in safe and comfortable ways, oral sucrose, breathing techniques, various stimuli, and guided imagery. They can also educate medical teams to use these techniques, which help to heal processes and eases anxiety.

Provides therapeutic play

Play is critical to children’s social and emotional health, and even more so during adverse experiences. Play is a coping technique that normalizes feelings and helps minimize physiologic responses to fear such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, fidgeting, and sweating. Play can also include animal-assisted therapy, infant massage, dramatic performance, music therapy, and facilitating technology use such as FaceTime for social connection.

Gives family support

Child life specialists can help families adjust to a child’s illness or health condition. Parent or caregiver anxiety often translates to children. Family support can include fostering communication between families and medical teams, helping siblings understand a medical situation, and bereavement support through legacy gifts like hand molds and memory boxes.

Works on medical education

Receiving a medical diagnosis as a kid can be scary! It may be hard to understand and questions may not come to mind until long after a doctor’s appointment. Child life specialists can use developmentally-appropriate language, toy models, pictures, videos, and play to help families and kids understand medical terms. De-mystifying medical information has a huge impact on helping kids develop a positive, trusting relationship with their bodies.

When might you need child life support?

If you're not sure whether you need support for your child, here are some aspects to consider:

  1. Lab draws;
  2. Needles. Pokes for vaccines or medications;
  3. Pain. Painful procedures;
  4. High anxiety. This may even include checking blood pressure or getting an x-ray;
  5. Calming. Coping skills for any kind of medical intervention;
  6. Discussion. Talking through and processing medical trauma or diagnoses;
  7. Everything else. Anytime you feel your child could use their support.

Get in touch with child life specialists

Child life specialists are common in pediatric hospitals. Depending on your pediatrician’s office, child life specialists may be available in primary care settings. If you sense that your child needs support during an appointment or a hospital admission, ask a staff member how to get in touch with the child's life. They can be responsive to in-the-moment requests or schedule time to work with your child ahead of time.

In pediatrics, healthcare professionals often say that “children are not little adults.” Child life specialists are excellent advocates for kids’ developmental needs to be incorporated in medical settings. They are team members to both families and medical staff with the goal to support your child and decrease feelings of fear and anxiety.

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