New experiences can be scary for children, and a hospital stay is probably one of the scariest new experiences for any child and their family. When a child or teen is scheduled for an overnight or extended hospital stay, parents can be confronted with not only the needs of their child, but also the anxiety it may create for the entire family.

Social workers can help families with many aspects of a hospital stay, from providing emotional support to more tangible needs like insurance and financial assistance. Ashley Peter, a social worker in Seattle Children’s Craniofacial Center, has found that many parents come in with similar questions, but are unsure of where to turn to first.

“As social workers, our goal is to make sure families know there is support available for a variety of needs, regardless of their situation,” said Peter. “We realize that being in the hospital is a lot for families to adjust to, which is why we are here to guide them through every step of the way.”

To help families prepare for a hospital stay, Peter recommends the following resources and tips:

Start Conversations Early

A social worker can help prepare patients before a surgery or hospital stay in an effort to reduce anxiety during the waiting period. It’s important to start having conversations with kids early, especially for more complex operations or extended hospital stays.

A key piece of these conversations is ensuring patients have the opportunity to share their feelings and reactions. Peter said parents should allow their children to speak in their own words when discussing surgery or hospitalization. If the provider or parent directs the conversation, it could introduce new fears or concerns the child had not considered. Social workers also partner with colleagues in the Child Life Department to determine the best timing for talking with patients about their care, depending on the child’s age and developmental level.

Before a hospitalization or surgery is also a time to talk with a child about what they can expect during their recovery. It’s best to be honest about what will happen, what might hurt or be uncomfortable and to provide choices whenever possible. Peter said it’s also important to reassure children that they will have support from providers if they are in pain and that there are resources, like medicine and relaxation techniques, to help them get through tough times.

The importance of parent self-care

Planning for a surgery, hospital stay and the logistics of medical care for a child can be incredibly stressful for parents. Social workers connect with parents to guide conversations about how their own stress and anxiety might cause headaches or lack of sleep. Peter recommends bringing comforting items from home like music or snacks – especially if parents don’t feel comfortable leaving a child to visit the cafeteria – to help address some of the anxiety.

Seattle Children’s has other onsite services like the Family Resource Center, which provides supportive services and educates families as they manage their child’s medical care, and the child life specialists, who work to improve the child’s and family’s wellbeing during their stay.

There are also resources available around insurance and employer advocacy if that’s a concern. A social worker can help provide support if parents need to miss work to be with their children, and can also identify financial resources to alleviate medical costs.

Ongoing support for the whole family

To help parents be able to focus during their child’s hospital stay, Seattle Children’s offers options to help care for patients’ siblings. For more short-term needs, there is a sibling play area where kids can play while parents attend clinic appointments. For more ongoing services, siblings can attend the Sibshops, classes that specialize in supporting siblings of brothers and sisters with developmental needs as well as certain types of complex medical issues. All groups include a support circle discussion activity, but really focus on offering a fun opportunity for kids to connect with other kids who are in similar situations. Older siblings can attend the Teensib group, which brings teens together four to five times a year for outings and social gatherings.

Annually, Camp Korey and Stanley Stamm Summer Camp offer week-long, overnight summer programs to help empower kids and families living with serious and life-altering medical conditions by offering them the opportunity to experience the joys of summer camp.

Finding answers

Overall, Peter said that no matter what concern may arise, social workers are here to help families prepare for and navigate any length of stay at the hospital.

“If you have a question or concern, we likely have an answer or a resource we can provide,” said Peter. “Just remember we’re here to help and we strive to ensure the entire family has the best, most stress-free experience during their stay.”