Talking with Your Child About Medical Care

Often parents have questions about talking with children or teens about their medical care. Providing information is incredibly helpful to your child. A child who feels supported can feel less afraid and anxious, as well as more prepared and in control.

Mother Speaking with Pediatric Patient

The more you understand your child's treatment plan, the more reassuring you can be when talking to your child about medical care.

You know your child best, but here are some suggestions for starting the discussion.

Prepare Yourself First

Before a scheduled hospital stay, procedure, or doctor’s visit at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at Pelisyonkis Langone, we encourage you to do your own research. Ask your child’s doctor all of the questions you have. Learn why a procedure is being performed, why a medication is being given, or what to expect during the treatment and recovery process. If your child is having surgery or being admitted for care, you can schedule a hospital tour. The more you know, the more helpful and reassuring you can be during conversations with your child.

Person Taking Notes

Peace of Mind Hotline

Contact our Peace of Mind hotline at peaceofmind@nyumc.org or -263-1100 if you have questions about talking with your child about care or would like to schedule a hospital tour.

Use Simple and Supportive Language

Try to leave enough time before a procedure or hospital visit, if possible, to explain the details to your child and let him or her ask questions. Describe the benefits that come with going to the hospital or doctor.

For example, if your child is afraid of vaccines, explain that the shot has special medicine that can keep him or her from getting very sick. If your child asks a question that you cannot answer, say that you don’t know, but you can get the answer from a member of the care team.

Be honest with your child. Children and teens rarely say it, but they can sense when you’re not telling them everything. They may also overhear parts of your conversations with others and become confused or scared. Provide information and answer questions as honestly and completely as possible.

Use nonthreatening words that your child can understand. Try to avoid words such as “painful” or “scary.” Describe what might happen using the senses: Share what your child might smell, hear, feel, or see while in the hospital. You can use photographs, videos, and dolls to illustrate what you’re saying.

When possible, use the real medical term, and then explain it. For example, you should call a test an “MRI scan,” but also explain that this involves a large machine that takes a photograph of the inside of the body.

Be Age Appropriate

A baby does not need a procedure explained, but he or she can often sense if you are anxious. Educating yourself about what to expect can help ease your nerves, so you in turn can support and comfort your baby.

Toddlers and children up to age 5 only need to be told 1 to 2 days in advance about an upcoming doctor’s visit or procedure. Use words your child can understand, don’t overexplain, and use play medical kits or simple picture books about doctors or hospitals.

School-aged children, from 6 to 12, can benefit from having about a week to process what is going to happen. If your child is scheduled for surgery or a procedure, let him or her help pick out some things to take to the hospital. Encourage your child to ask questions and to think about what he or she might need to feel more in control or confident.

Help your child’s friends stay in touch, if that’s what your child wants. Speak with teachers or guidance counselors to see if you can collect any missed schoolwork if needed. Hospital school teachers can help if your child is expected to miss class for an extended period.

Teens need the most information, which helps empower them and give them more control over their own healthcare. Have your teen write a list of questions to ask the doctor or nurse before a visit, surgery, or hospitalization. Encourage friends to stay in contact and to visit when your child feels ready. Talk with your child’s guidance counselor about ways to ensure your child keeps up with his or her schoolwork.

Ease Your Child’s Mind

A doctor’s office or hospital may make a child feel anxious. Your child might become very clingy and worried that you’ll be separated. Fear of pain, such as during a blood test, can often be worse than the experience itself. Meeting the care team may be intimidating, and then there could be worry about what being sick means. Older children might think a diagnosis is much worse than it is or feel guilty for being sick at all.

Comfort your child in whatever way you know works best for him or her. Let your child talk freely about worries. Always reassure your child that you are by his or her side and that the doctors and nurses are experts at what they do.

If your child’s worries are beyond what you can address on your own, please let us know. Our child life specialists, creative arts therapists, social workers, and other members of the psychosocial team are here to help.