How to Help Your Child Prepare for Surgery

Surgery can be scary at any age, never mind when the patient is a child. Little ones don’t always understand what’s happening or why.

Talking children through the procedure can help kids feel less anxious, says UNC Health pediatric surgeon Michael Phillips, MD.

But first, make sure it’s a good idea to go forward with the surgery right now. During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, hospitals are taking extra precautions to make sure patients are safe. Parents might ask their child’s surgeon these two questions, Dr. Phillips says: Should this surgery wait until COVID-19 infection rates in your area are lower, and what safety protocols—such as preoperative testing—are in place to reduce the risk of transmission?

If you and your child’s health team have determined it’s best to go forward with surgery, you’ll want to help your child get ready with as little anxiety as possible. Dr. Phillips offers these tips.

1. Understand how they’re feeling.

All people process anxiety differently, so the first step to easing your child’s discomfort is figuring out how your child feels about surgery. Try not to assume their emotions, level of understanding or what they want to know—ask them.

“We have some kids who come in and want to know specifically what’s going to happen, and some kids who get more nervous by those details,” Dr. Phillips says. “I try to encourage parents to get a sense of how information about the surgery will affect their kids.”

Asking your child questions such as, “Why are you here today?” or “What are we going to do?” can reveal how much they understand and how they’re feeling. From there, you can encourage them to ask any questions they have.

2. Target your communication based on the child.

Once you know how your child feels about surgery, you’ll have a better understanding of how to talk to them about the procedure. Your approach will depend on their age, emotional maturity and mood tendencies.

“It’s really important to tailor the message to the child,” Dr. Phillips says. For kids who experience less anxiety, for example, parents may choose to explain more in-depth details about the diagnosis and surgical process. For other children, a detailed account of surgery can cause more stress, so parents may want to talk more broadly.

“The more that kids know at the level that’s appropriate for them, the better prepared they are to deal with the process,” Dr. Phillips says. “Ultimately, parents know their kids better than we do and how to communicate with their children best.”

3. Set expectations.

While the level of detail shared will vary based on the child, you’ll want to set expectations during your conversations so that there are no surprises, Dr. Phillips says.

“The hospital is such a foreign environment, that just being familiar with it can be very helpful,” he says. That’s why the UNC surgery team created a “what to expect” video for prospective pediatric surgery patients, narrated by a child, that parents can show to their children.

You should also explain what your child can expect post-operation. Let them know if they need to sleep overnight at the hospital, for how long and when you’ll be there. Many children’s hospitals, including UNC’s, have liberal visiting hours so that parents can remain with their child most of the time and one parent can stay overnight. Consider bringing a beloved toy, photographs or other mementos to create a comforting environment.

4. Take care of yourself, too.

If your child is heading to the operating room, it’s normal for you to be nervous. In order for you to provide support, you have to find ways to take care of yourself and ease your own anxiety.

Exercise, taking part in a hobby and other activities that reduce stress can help alleviate nervousness. For some parents, researching information online can also offer some peace of mind—but you have to do it carefully.

“What I tell parents is that knowing the full process themselves can be helpful, because then you know what to look out for,” Dr. Phillips says. “I try to steer them toward reliable resources, such as the American Pediatric Surgical Association or the websites of children’s hospitals, so that they are getting accurate information about the typical experience rather than stories of the worst-case scenario.”

Don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s doctor, either.

“We’re always open to talk to parents more or scheduling another visit to go over the procedure one more time,” Dr. Phillips says. “I tell people when I meet them that we’re going to talk again the morning of the surgery, so if they have questions before then, they should make a list that we can talk through so that they feel comfortable before anything happens.”

Need a pediatric specialist for your child? Find one near you.