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Child Development and Child Life
Arriving at the hospital, parents often find themselves in a situation that they never thought possible. Many parents tell us that they feel overwhelmed and uncertain about how they will meet the responsibilities as the parents of an ill child. At St. Jude, there are many people on staff, including child life specialists, who care for and provide support to patients and their families. Child Life Specialists are professionals with a clinical background in child development who are trained to help children and teens adjust to hospitalization and their illness. They work with all patients, siblings, and parents to offer explanations about diagnosis, tests, and procedures in a way designed for children and teens to understand.
Child Life Specialists make the hospital a less intimidating place through the use of play and preparation. They provide opportunities to meet other children and teens in similar situations, encourage the expression of feelings, and promote normal growth and development by using playrooms, the teen room, and individual bedside activities. Child Life Specialists are also here to help support you in your search for ways to help your children cope.
Simple ways to support your child
Once a child or teen is diagnosed with an illness, it affects the entire family, including brothers and sisters. Siblings of a St. Jude patient can experience extended separation from a parent or the patient. They also may have to cope with the unfamiliar hospital setting and changes in routines at home. Because of these changes, it is normal for you to see siblings acting differently. During this time, sibling behaviors may include being jealous, “clingy,” demanding, or introverted. Each sibling response to stress is unique, but all need your understanding and reassurance. These changes in behavior are usually not permanent and should improve as the family establishes a new routine.
Brothers and sisters often have unspoken questions and fears when their sibling is first diagnosed. For example, they may not understand the diagnosis or why the patient cannot come home. Siblings commonly wonder if they or the patient could have done something wrong to cause the illness. They might even worry that they can “catch” the illness. They may also be thinking about who will care for them in their caregiver’s absence. Talk about these unspoken fears with your children, and answer their questions honestly and in simple language. This will help to maintain trust and keep the lines of communication open.
If the siblings spend little or no time at the hospital, they might imagine something very different than what is really happening to the patient. At St. Jude, brothers and sisters are encouraged to visit the hospital. Child life specialists can meet with siblings to prepare them for some of the new things they will see. For siblings who are too far away to visit, Child life specialists can assist parents in making those siblings part of the hospital experience. They can give parents materials to send home, such as books, current audio and video recordings, photos, medical play dolls, and personalized letters to explain the patient’s diagnosis.
Ways to support siblings: