Our six-year-old fell and broke his wrist while pretending to be a stuntman – jumping from a bar stool to a mini trampoline – and needed surgery to align broken and displaced bones. It was very traumatic for our son and for us as parents. Having gone through this experience as a parent, I learned some tips. In this post, I’m sharing tips for how to manage your child’s anxiety during medical procedures.
Disclaimer: My advice does not replace the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always consult your medical professional. This post contains affiliate links. See my disclaimer page for details.
This is the sixth installment of my Children’s Healthcare Series.
My Son’s Pain and Fear Heightened his Anxiety
My son’s pain and fear heightened his intolerance for medical procedures during his treatment course. Certain phrases used by the medical staff brought on extreme anxiety for him. Calming him back down was agonizing for us as parents. Having a history as a pediatric nurse helped me in this situation, but going through medical procedures with my own fearful child brought new challenges to me as a mom.
Overcoming a child’s fear about an impending medical procedure can be an exhausting road for parents. There are several approaches that can help ease this fear.
Tips For How to Manage Your Child’s Anxiety During Medical Procedures
The initial pain after our son’s fall was extreme and, as parents, we knew we had to put our own anxiety aside to act quickly and rationally. Our pediatrician suggested we go straight to a clinic with an orthopedist. Our son’s wrist did not swell, but it was crooked so we knew it was broken. We had no doubt; we knew we needed to go in.
As we waited for his x-ray results at the clinic, our son’s incessant shrieking fueled our anxiety more because we were helpless to relieve his pain. When the staff came in to tell us the news that surgery would be needed later that day for pin placement, the already shaky floor fell out from under us. Our situation had gone from bad to worse.
We were devastated to find found out a cast wasn’t going to be enough.
Up next was applying the splint. The worst part about this step was our son was not able to have pain medication due to the impending surgery. I cringed as I realized he was going to have to undergo the splinting procedure in full-fledged unmedicated pain.
Our son’s fear came roaring at us as the staff set up to splint his arm amidst his tear-filled eyes and yelling protests. We pleaded with him, insisting the splint would make it hurt less, but he was panicked. I knew holding his hand during the procedure would help reduce his anxiety and make me feel like I was doing something to help. I told him to squeeze my fingers with his other hand while they applied the splint. His screams brought tears to my eyes, and to my husband’s as well.
It was agonizing.
When it was done, he said, “Squeezing your hand helped, Mom.”
Takeaway Tips: Whenever possible, be in physical contact with your child – if you can’t hug, hold a hand. Put your own anxiety aside to support your child. Unfortunately, sometimes everyone just has to endure.
Preparing for Surgery
The clinic staff sent us home because surgery was scheduled for later in the day. Our son was not able to have anything to eat, drink, or any pain meds, but the splint helped reduce his pain to at least get him to stop screaming and crying.
He went about his day and even played around some with his brothers. It was nice to see a smile on his face, even if it was only for a few moments.
After we’d been home for an hour, we got a phone call from the hospital. The nurse told us surgery was going to have to be rescheduled due to staffing issues at the hospital. This was both good and bad because he now could have pain meds and food, but he would have to go through the night without pain meds because he needed to be NPO prior to surgery.
Trying to sleep with pain on board and while being hungry does not work for anyone, let alone a child. I knew we had a tough night ahead of us.
Use Distraction and Give Age Appropriate Answers to Questions
At 2:30 a.m., when he said he couldn’t sleep anymore, we got up and watched TV. This was a great distraction from the pain for him, plus time went by faster for him.
He really amazed me and did much better with the pain and hunger than I had expected. He understood he couldn’t have anything to eat or drink, and he accepted it.
Around 4:30, we headed out into the cold, dark morning to drive to the hospital. As we drove, he had many questions about what would happen once we got to the hospital. I knew less specific information would be better for him as a six-year-old so I focused on the fact that the doctor would fix his arm rather than stating specifics of how they would fix his arm.
Since the developmental age of a child impacts fear, explanations of the procedure should vary based on the age of the child. Older children may understand more detailed explanations than younger kids, and preparing a child with books about what to expect can help reduce anxiety (kidshealth.org link below).
Be Aware of What Phrases Increase Your Child’s Anxiety and Use Alternatives
Certain phrases can trigger anxiety and increase surgical procedure fears (Verywell.com).
Once admitted to the hospital, my son’s anxiety exploded when the staff began to use the phrase, go to sleep over and over again. I tried to catch the staff and ask them not to use that phrase, as it sent our son into hysterics every time. But, new staff would come in and say it before I caught them, or staff would forget and say it again sending my son into a downward spiral. To counter the anxiety triggered by that particular phrase, I repeated a sentence that calmed him each time the hospital staff said it. I repeated to him how the doctors would use medicine (rather than go to sleep) so that he wouldn’t feel them fixing his arm.
My sentence took the focus off the word sleep which was enflaming his fear. Some children have negative associations with sleep –they can be fearful about going to sleep and not waking up, so they should be assured that they will sleep during surgery and wake when it’s done. Or they could be thinking about pets – when pets are put to sleep, they die. So, it’s important to assure children that sleep is temporary in surgery.
Offering a Choice Can Help Reduce Anxiety
Many people were coming in to my son’s room prior to surgery plus many unusual and unfamiliar things were happening to him so his level of anxiety kept going up and down.
After privately discussing the next step with the anesthiologist in the hallway, we came up with a plan. The anesthesiologist presented my son with an empowering choice in that he could pick which way the medicine would be administered to him prior to the start of the surgery. Being able to offer a choice helped reduce anxiety for my son because it gave him some sense of control over what was happening to him.
Breathing into a mask was one option for anesthesia, and receiving medication in the arm was another. He was very afraid of the mask, so he opted for the arm method, which required an IV. A numbing medication was used to ease the pain of the needle used for IV insertion plus we distracted him by talking about the show on tv. He didn’t love the IV process either, but he was less scared of it than he was of the mask being held on his face.
If You Cry in Front of Your Child & Tips to Help Ease Parent Anxiety
What I didn’t anticipate was my own inability to control my emotions when I considered that something could go wrong. I worried about a complication developing or even the rare, but real, potential for death.
When we were visited by the Chaplain, I became gripped by intense fear as he said a prayer for safety and healing and I cried in front of my son. Seeing me cry scared my son exacerbating his anxiety. I covered it up stating I was sad he got hurt rather than spilling my real fears for his safety. I gave him a hug and rubbed his cheek. He understood and believed my reason for crying.
Takeaway Tip: Stepping out of the room, but still remaining in sight of your child if possible for a minute (or turning your back) is also an option when overcome by your own tears. Staying calm and using calm non-verbal cues can help a child be less fearful.
Walking alongside his bed as he was wheeled into the OR also helped calm my anxiety. I was allowed to stay with him until he was given the anesthetic and went to sleep. His most dreaded phrase sleep, but it comforted me to see him fall asleep, as I knew he was no longer crying or in pain.
Takeaway Tip: Accompanying your child into the operating room to ease separation fears associated with impending surgery, is another effective measure for reducing anxiety.
Even with a short half hour surgery, sitting in the waiting room was torture. As a nurse, I know anesthesia procedures are quite safe today, but the parent in me felt gripped by the potential for complications. When they called to say he was awake and well, and that I could see him in the recovery room, I was elated.
Tips for What to Say Once Surgery is Over
In the recovery room my fears melted as I saw he was sipping apple juice with his arm propped up on two pillows.
He smiled at me and said, “Now there is just one thing left, they need to fix my arm.”
I laughed with relief as I told him it was already done and they’d fixed him already. He was amazed that he didn’t even remember any of it.
Takeaway Tip: Telling a child that they will not remember what occurred during surgery once they wake up is also an important piece to include when preparing for surgery.
Getting The Cast
A week later the hard cast was applied and the staff told him he was indestructible, which is what every 6-year old wants to hear. He had attained superhero status with an indestructible arm! He picked out a royal blue color and brought markers to school so his classmates could sign it.
Kids are resilient! Even with a cast on he still enjoyed New Year’s Eve!
Repeat Medical Procedures and What to Say to Your Child
When it was time for the second surgery to remove the pins, my son understood more about what to expect because he had been through his previous surgery so he was less fearful. That said, it’s important to accommodate for emerging fears that arise.
Because we went to a different medical center for the second surgery, I found what worked last time didn’t work as well for him the second time so I adjusted accordingly. The IV hurt more the second time so that was a struggle we just had to work through as I emphasized it was only temporary so he could get the cast off. Plus, the staff had to use the mask for medication which he was so scared of the first time around. I found ways to soothe him using distraction and I talked about about him going home without a cast on after the surgery.
Again, as his guide, I used wording that was less likely to trigger his fears. I told my son, “They will remove your cast.” I did not say, “They’ll use a saw to cut your cast off.” The word saw would incite fears in him, so I knew I needed to avoid it in our conversations.
Takeaway Tip: As parents, we have to adapt our approach as our children’s fears change.
Discussion and education are key in easing and overcoming fear and anxiety triggered by medical procedures. Being prepared to guide your child through the steps and phases of surgery fears is an important factor in keeping them calm. And keeping you calm as the parent as well. Good luck and I hope all goes well for you and your child in their future medical procedures.
This is the fifth installment in my Children’s Healthcare Series. To view the other installments visit this page https://www.juliehoagwriter.com/childrens-healthcare-series/
Disclaimer: My advice does not replace the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always consult your medical professional. See my disclaimer page for details.
A version of this article curenlty appears on Motherly.
Related Post: Signs Your Child is Anxious
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Thanks for visiting my blog:) I hope my advice helps ease your child’s fears the next time they are faced with a scary medical procedure.
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Nicole | The Professional Mom Project says
Such a helpful post. My son has gone through two MRIs (he’s only 5) and the last time he was old enough to understand what was going on. It was so important for us to explain everything to him to put him at ease.
Julie Hoag says
I’m so sorry he has gone through two at such a young age. So many of the medical procedures are so scary for young kids. They are scared just walking in the door let alone going through the procedure itself. It is so important to try and explain it at their level and in a way that makes it better for them. It’s hard to make the kids go through those necessary procedures. Thank you.
It is really hard to see our kids at a very young age to undergo medical procedures. if only we could take their place. It is scary for them but as parents we should be strong and assure them that everything will be just fine after the procedure.
Julie Hoag says
Yes, exactly. It’s hard to watch, but we must be there to support them and be their strength. They need us. Thanks for the comment.