How to Prepare Yourself and Your Child for Surgery, According to a Child Life Specialist

child interacting with child life specialist
Graphics by: Anna Wissler

There are medical professionals for every specialty—pediatrics, cardiology, orthopedics, the list goes on—and they all do an incredible job at fixing the most delicate of problems. But when we have little ones who need to undergo a procedure neither of you has experienced, it’s easy to fall prey to anxiety no matter how highly trained the doctor the doctor holding the scalpel is. So who can you rely on to help you and your child through this harrowing experience? The answer is a child life specialist, and we’re sharing everything we know about them here.

For half a decade now, The Everymom has strived to be a go-to resource for whatever kind of motherhood moment you’re in: the good, the bad, the scary. So we’ve put together a comprehensive guide with the help of the medical experts at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago to answer all your questions regarding common surgical procedures. A child life specialist will be sharing a little bit about what she does and how best you can prepare for surgery.

1. What is a child life specialist?

A child life specialist is a licensed clinician trained in emotional safety, mental health, and trauma-informed practices and interventions that help patients and families cope with a wide variety of medical encounters. 


2. How can you help a child and their family understand a medical procedure or diagnosis?

This looks different for every family, depending on criteria like how much they already know, cultural beliefs, developmental considerations, community resources, and the like. Our intent is to utilize developmentally appropriate terminology to meet patients and families where they’re at and to provide clear and honest information that supports age-appropriate understanding, autonomy, control, and choice. We take the trust our patients and families have in us very seriously, and we also balance the responsibility we have to our respective medical teams in pursuing necessary treatment.


3. How do you guide parents through post-operative care?

We partner with medical teams, patients, and their families to identify the individual needs of each patient and their family. We utilize the tenants of practice detailed above to bridge the gap between being a child and a patient in the hospital, between ethically-sound and top-tier care and the individual’s needs, preferences, and considerations.


4. What’s the best way to prepare my child for surgery?

It varies for every child. We encourage families to utilize developmentally appropriate information in a developmentally attuned time frame to assess what they understand, inform them to the best of their ability and in alignment with what’s best for the child, and empower them with choices as appropriate.



5. What do parents typically struggle with the most when their child has surgery? 

With deep compassion and given my experience, my answer to this is their own (the caregiver’s) anxiety and nervousness. Caregivers prioritize their child’s safety. When tasked with the responsibility of explaining a diagnosis, a surgery, or even a potentially painful experience, this can render parents unsure and confused and dial up their anxiety.

I like to remind parents that feelings are for feeling, not for fixing, and that goes for their own feelings too. I also remind parents that it’s not a parent’s responsibility to keep their child happy 100 percent of the time, as that isn’t a realistic expectation for life. The best thing parents can do is love their child through it all: Be present with them for the highs and lows, ask questions together, and never be afraid to lean on your medical teams for support. In the same way you’re there for them, we’re here for them and you.


6. How do I ease my child’s fear before a surgery?

Provide them with age-appropriate information, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but we can find out together,” and set clear, compassionate boundaries around what their choices are and are not. For support, call a child life specialist.


7. How would you help a child who’s experiencing a high level of pain?

The level of pain and the subjective experience of pain is infinite and deeply nuanced. There are innumerable factors that contribute to the experience of pain that include trauma histories, long-term or short-term pain, whether or not they were prepared for discomfort, traumatic incident or long term illness, etc.

Child life specialists meet their patients and their patients’ families where they’re at and support pain management from the emotional perspective—how does our emotional reaction impact our experience? We take things moment by moment alongside the families and their children to do what we can with what we have. We help navigate intense moments of discomfort, set compassionate expectations and offer appropriate education on necessary care, and constantly assess and reassess for evolving needs.

Want to learn more? Check out what the specialists from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago are sharing here.


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This post was in partnership with Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everymom editorial board. We only recommend brands we genuinely love.