Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can help heal you…

By Rowan Ousley

As parents and carers we all want to do all that we can to make things as easy, safe and as comfortable for our children as possible. This is especially true for the times that our children come to hospital. One of the most natural things we do is providing comfort to them with soothing words. But what if our choice of word is doing the opposite of what we want them to do? What is the “right” thing to say? What things should we avoid, and why?

Now, just a quick aside; I want you to not think of a pink elephant.

Ok? Just don’t think of a pink elephant.

What’s that?

You couldn’t help but think of a pink elephant? That’s ok, it’s just your brain doing what it is programmed to do. It heard the “think” bit, but not the “don’t’ part. Our brains often hear different instruction to the words being said. The interesting words stand out, and some of the less interesting words can be ignored, changing the meaning of the instruction.

So why am I telling you this? Sometimes when we tell our children not to do things, we are actually encouraging the brain to do it. If we tell our child “Don’t be scared” the brain hears “Be scared”. This is especially true if the child didn’t realise that there was anything to be ‘scared’ about in the first place, but just thought that they were somewhere interesting and new, with people they trust. The same goes for instructions like “Don’t move”, they hear “move”, or “Don’t cry”, they hear “cry”. Do you start to get the picture?

I’ll give you a few more examples. The part of the sentence that stands out to the child’s brain is in bold, and you can see that it is the opposite message to what you want to heard.

“There isn’t going to be a Needle

“It isn’t going to Hurt

So even though you are trying to be helpful and make children feel better, the words may do the opposite to what you want.

Sometimes it is hard to separate our experiences, our likes and dislikes as adults from those of our children. Things like, if you don’t like heights, you try and stop your child from climbing. We don’t want those we care about to have to deal with the things that scare us. It is one of the biggest challenges for us as parents and carers, isn’t it? To allow our children to experience life for themselves and to draw their own conclusions. Our natural instinct is to teach and protect.

If one of the things that scare us is going to hospital, or having operations, it is understandable that we might project this worry on to our child. It’s our brain’s attempt to protect them, but unfortunately again; it often has the opposite effect. Wouldn’t it be nice if, for our children, going to theatre was easy? One of the ways we can help them to do this is to let them experience it for themselves.

Imagine if you could take your child to a place where everyone wanted to talk with them and show them interesting things. A place where there were things to do and see, a place where they could learn about science and their bodies. Where there were lots of amazing machines and friendly faces. Sounds great? Hospitals through the eyes of a child can be just that, if we encourage them to see it in a positive way.

What is another example of this? Well, say you don’t like needles. Fair enough. But say your child has never had much experience with them. Chances are, once numbing cream is applied, and your child is busily distracted by our expert staff, they will barely even notice it go in. See, that was easy, wasn’t it? Except that if they have already been told that you hate needles, they will expect to hate them too. Or that you hate the smell of the mask, they might start to question if they want that either.

So, what can you say?

It is important to tell children the truth, and you can do that and still put them at ease.

Firstly, in almost all circumstances it is important to make sure that your child knows that they are coming to hospital for an operation. After all, you want your child to trust you that you are taking them where you say you are going. If you tell them you are going for a haircut and end up at the hospital, they are unlikely to want to go for that trim a few weeks later. But that doesn’t mean you need to fill in all the blanks for them, or let their imagination run wild.

Let them experience it for what it is. Hospitals can be interesting places, full of friendly workers. Children’s hospitals especially are set up with activities and distractions for children, which gives you many positive things to focus on.

Telling a child what is going to happen doesn’t need to be scary. You can keep it simple and tell the facts that you do know. There is no need to lie and say there won’t be any pain, simply that they will get medicine to help. You don’t have to go into details about how an operation is going to happen, describing things getting cut out and such, just what the child will know, that is, that they will have a special deep sleep, and when they wake up, the operation will be finished. They will be given special medicines to help them feel better. Someone stays with them the whole time, keeping them safe and comfortable.

An anaesthetist is someone that looks after children while they are having their operation so that they can wake up safely afterwards and, as comfortably as possible. As a parent you don’t have to have all the answers either. If your child is seeking more information, reassure your child that they will have a chance to ask any questions they like of the Anaesthetist before the operation. You can also help them to look through the information for them on this website.

Sometimes it is best to allow us to explain it in words that we know are useful and true, rather than guessing at what might happen or concerning a child unnecessarily. It is helpful too if there aren’t too many promises made, as it can be difficult if we can’t keep them for a reason. If you don’t know what to say, it is ok to let us do the talking for you. It’s what we do for a living and we enjoy helping children.


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