How Child Life Can Help

Family support

Families offer children security and comfort and are the core of a child’s life. At Children’s Hospital we believe in and practice family-centered-care. This means a parent is always welcome to stay at his/her child’s bedside. Parents are also strongly encouraged to remain as their child’s primary caregiver and to be fully involved in their child’s care while in the hospital.

Child life specialists focus on nurturing the special bond between children and their families by providing many of the same services to parents as we provide to children.  Many times, it is as important for parents to be prepared for a child’s procedure so their own fears are addressed. When parents have the information they need, they are better able to provide support for their child. It is also important for parents to be distracted and take breaks while their child is in the hospital. Parents are encouraged to engage in normative activities. There are many resources within the hospital that your child life specialist can share with you.

Grief and bereavement

The death of a loved one is always a difficult experience. Learning to cope with the loss can also be challenging. Everyone grieves in their own unique way.

Children, especially young children, can also have a difficult time understanding what death means and beginning the grieving process. Child life specialists, because of their background in child development, can help explain to children at their level what death means using books, play, and art activities. Child life specialists can also provide support to children and families facing a loss that will help them begin the grieving process in a positive way.

The grieving process varies from person to person in terms of the order in which one experiences the stages of grief and how long it takes to go through these stages. Some people may start with anger, while others may start with denial. The stages of grieving can also be experienced more than once. However, each step helps with the healing process.

Medical play

Medical play helps children and teens become more comfortable and familiar with the hospital. Play, a normal childhood activity, is the core of child life services. Play promotes expression of feelings, a sense of mastery, and comfort with medical procedures. Through play, children can work out fears of abandonment, bodily harm, and loss of control. It also helps them develop in physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual ways.

Child life specialists use medical play to encourage children to handle medical objects in a nonthreatening manner. Medical play sessions give children the chance to express themselves and the specialist an opportunity to watch for signs of anxiety or misunderstanding about their health care experience. That’s why hands-on experiences, such as role playing with medically modified dolls and stuffed animals, are used to help children get ready for medical procedures.

Sibling support

It is not easy for a child to be sick and in the hospital.  It’s not easy to be the sick child’s brother or sister, either. Child life specialists can help your child’s brother or sister:

  • Prepare for a visit to the hospital
  • Understand medical procedures and/or diagnoses
  • Process their feelings about the hospital or events that have or will happen
  • Stay connected to the hospitalized sibling
  • Supply reading materials or handouts that provide information in age-appropriate language

Tips for Parents to Remember About Siblings

  • Include siblings in conversations about the hospitalization or surgery. They need to know from what is happening, too.
  • Encourage the sibling to ask questions. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know but you’ll find out.
  • The misconceptions siblings have may often be worse than the actual facts. It may be helpful to ask them what they think or understand.
  • Be honest and listen to their questions and concerns.
  • Have siblings lead as normal a life as possible, including attending school, church, or other social events.
  • Schedule specific time to spend with your well child away from the hospital.  They need one-on-one time with you as well.
  • Before siblings visit the child in the hospital, help them be prepared. The physical appearance of the ill child and the hospital environment can be overwhelming if not discussed beforehand.

Sibling Reactions to Hospitalized and Illness

When a brother or sister is sick or in the hospital, the well sibling can experience a variety of reactions and emotions. The following are typical reactions of siblings to having a brother or sister who is sick or in the hospital. It is important to remember that each child behaves and adjusts differently to his or her experiences.


Many children have fears of things real and unknown. When a child has a brother or sister who is sick or in the hospital they may have fears about catching the illness or that the ill child may die. Children worry about being separated from their parents and who will take care of them. Children may also fear that expressing their worries will upset others or make their worries true.


Any changes in a child’s normal routine are likely to increase anxiety. Being separated from parents may increase a child’s anxiety over seemingly simple things, such as choosing clothes to wear or not having a good night kiss.

Isolation and Rejection

Well siblings often feel excluded from the family as they are cared for by substitute caregivers in houses other than their own. This feeling of exclusion or isolation may make a child keep their feelings to himself and begin to withdraw normal activities. A child may also interpret these events as rejection or abandonment.


This is a natural feeling for siblings because of the increased attention and gifts the ill child receives from parents, friends, and other family members.


Siblings may feel guilty because they are able to continue their normal routine of going to school, playing with friends, and having fun. Very young children may even feel responsible for their sibling’s illness by something they did or did not do. Older children may feel guilty for past arguments or fights they had with the ill sibling that were never resolved.

The best thing parents can do for their well child is to make time to spend with him or her away from the hospital. Listen to her fears, questions, and other feelings.  For additional information on helping siblings cope, contact the child life specialist.