Child life specialists make play their work
Imagine your child has to be hospitalized for a serious procedure. You head to the hospital, and your mind is racing. You have no idea what to expect, how your child will handle the experience or even how you’ll handle the experience. How do you prepare for this?
Not to worry. A certified child life specialist can be your best resource for navigating what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming journey. Certified child life specialists receive specific training to help children and their families overcome challenging life events, particularly hospital-related experiences.
The biggest tool child life specialists have available to them — and to your child — is play.
“We utilize play to help patients cope with their medical care experience,” explains Linda Bensing, certified child life specialist at Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge. Bensing says they use play to help young patients understand procedures. More importantly, it’s used as a distraction during a medical procedure to help them refocus their attention. Play is also used just for normal fun “to normalize the environment so not everything is about the medical care,” she says.
“It is beneficial for adults too,” Bensing adds. “We’re very family-centered. It’s not just the patient we’re treating. Everyone benefits from play. It’s an opportunity that helps them reconnect as a family and do normal things.”
For some child life specialists, procedure preparation is a large part of their role in hospitals. “We help the child and the family understand what is about to happen at an age-appropriate teaching level,” says Melissa Cavanaugh, certified child life specialist at Advocate Children’s Hospital—Oak Lawn. “Knowledge reduces anxiety,” she adds.
Teaching tools, such as Legacy dolls, help make the procedure explanations a lot easier. These soft dolls generally stand about 3 feet tall. They have the option of hair or no hair and may feature interchangeable adapters and accessories that address a variety of medical conditions.
“We use it in clinics where kids are battling cancer and tumors,” explains Denise Morrissey, certified child life specialist at the Park Ridge campus. “It may help show kids how a gastric tube works, a port or central line, and we have the ability to show how chemo or spinal injections work.”
“The doll is used so that kids can role play, or medical play, which allows kids to gain control over the experience,” Morrissey says. “They can rehearse what happens in their situation so they’re knowledgeable and have active control over what’s happening to them.”
Once the procedure gets underway, child life specialists continue to play a key role. “We use distracting tools, such as iPads, ‘I SPY’ books, guided imagery and bubbles,” Cavanaugh says. “Even for an infant, we may rub the head and be the comfort person. We’re there just for patients to focus on.”
Power to the patients
Helping patients and families cope is the true service that child life specialists provide, but it extends even deeper than that. For Bensing, it’s also about empowerment.
She explains that some kids feel like a passive victim with all the medical procedures being thrust on them. “The whole goal of child life is to help restore their control so that they can feel mastery of the healthcare experience,” Bensing says. “We help them recognize that they’ve gone through a challenge and come out OK, with self-esteem intact.”
Learn more about child life programs at Advocate Children’s Hospital, here.
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About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.