Doctors might talk with you first, without your child present about a procedure your child must have, especially if your child is younger. As a parent, you have to decide how much of this information to give your child and when to talk about it. In general, giving your child information ahead of time can help reduce distress about the procedure. It also gives your child the opportunity to ask questions and practice coping skills.
Of course, how much information you give and when you talk with your child depend on how old your child is, your child’s history with painful procedures, what type of procedure your child needs to have, and your best judgment about when to inform your child. Children usually need more time to prepare for more invasive and painful procedures — generally between a few days and a week before the procedure, but the timing depends on your child’s age and developmental level.1 Older children generally need more detailed explanations than younger children.
Information should be specific — tell your child what he or she can expect to happen (the procedure) and what he or she might feel (the sensory experience). Use simple language that your child can understand and check understanding by having your child tell you in his or her own words what might happen. Encourage your child to ask questions and be sure to ask your medical team any questions that you can’t answer.
Your child might ask, “Is it going to hurt?” Your first instinct might be to say it won’t, in order to reduce fear or worry, but it is important to tell the truth so your child trusts what you say. This is also another opportunity to show your child that you know they can handle it — letting him or her know that they are likely to feel some “prick/pain/ouch” (or whatever word you and your child use to describe pain) but they will get through it and can then get back to more fun activities.
If your child seems very nervous about what the procedure is or where it will happen, it may be possible to work with your medical team, especially psychologists or child life specialists, to see the room where the procedure will take place or practice with a sample of the medical equipment that will be used. For example, children who were able to practice putting on the anesthesia mask prior to their surgery as part of a copings skills intervention were less nervous about putting on the mask during their actual surgery.2 Some hospitals also have specialized pain teams that work with children who have long-lasting or complex pain to help ease their suffering.