Shriner's hospital Houston child life

Image: Shiner’s Hospital for Children, Houston

There are two sides to every child: physical and emotional. Child Life Specialists make sure that gains in the physical side for a child facing health challenges and hospitalization do not have to come at the expense of the emotional side. It is their job to stand between a child and her fear—to offer compassion, distraction and understanding that can help bolster a child emotionally so that she can heal physically.

Medicine has had the tendency to think a child can turn off their lives—and the emotions that go with it—when they walk through the hospital doors.  But now healthcare is starting to respect that this is impossible. You can’t put a child on hold. Instead, a child’s emotional life continues in the hospital.  For kids who are in the hospital frequently or for an extended time, it may be their primary place for growth. It is a Child Life Specialist’s job to ensure a child’s emotional experience of the hospital is as positive as possible.

When adults are faced with time in the hospital, the adult brain does its best to counteract fear with information—to understand diagnosis, treatment options, and their likely outcomes.  Through this process, adults can strip away layers of uncertainty and layers of anxiety. Yet kids may not have this ability to overlay emotion with rationality. In the hospital, they are at the mercy of their anxieties. Will it hurt? What will happen? Will I be okay?

At Digging Deep we believe that young people can and should be allowed to work through the emotional side of their health challenges. Beyond just decompressing anxiety with rationality, a child should be allowed to express their fears, their sadness,  their disappointment—just as they should be allowed to be express their optimism and joy.

Play doesn’t stop in the hospital!

A Child Life Specialist’s work goes well beyond just making kids happy. For example, a 2014 study in the journal Pediatric Radiology writes that with the introduction of a child life program to a large hospital radiology department, “Measures of parent satisfaction, staff satisfaction, child satisfaction, child pain, and child distress are shown to be positively impacted.” In other words, Child Life Specialists have a real-world impact on young patients’ wellbeing.

Another study, this one in the journal Child Health Care, writes that, “Research and practice have demonstrated that child life services, such as play and preparation, help to decrease costs (i.e., reducing the length of stay and decreasing the need for analgesics).”

There are many more studies to be cited, but clearly, before, during, and after procedures, children and teens are better off with the compassionate care offered by child life.  This March, during Child Life Month, please join us all here at Digging Deep in helping us celebrate these pioneers in the emotional health of children with complex medical needs!

Kristi Pikiewicz
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.

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