How to Help Your Child Cope With a Medical Emergency
It seemed odd the nanny was calling me at work. With a shaky voice she asked if I was sitting down. I wasn’t, but I said I was. My daughter was in an ambulance following an accident she had at the pool. The EMT got on the phone and said, “She’s going to be all right, but it’s bad. You have to know it’s bad.”
I was grateful for my training as a trauma therapist. My job was my saving grace and helped me to be conscious in my words and actions during this difficult time. Without my professional skills, I’m not sure how I would have coped with this scary experience.
I believe trauma therapists should not be the only caregivers equipped to handle a crisis like this. In an effort to better equip parents for a medical emergency, I want to share some pieces of advice that come from both my personal experience and professional training.
During the emergency:
1) Take a deep breath and try to remain calm and strong. Most likely, your child is looking to you for cues that they’re going to be all right. Your primary role is to keep your child feeling safe and — although they are hurt — taken care of and feeling everything is under control. You can convey this confidence in your tone, your facial expressions, and in your ability to regulate your own physical and mental state.
2) Remain close to your child. If you are able to, hold and carry your child as much as you can. If you are unable to have physical contact with your child, remain as close as possible, making your presence known. Sing favorite songs and talk to your child about favorite topics.
3) Explain to your child what will be happening. If your child needs a shot, will be sedated, is getting an IV, or having surgery, tell them. Letting these intrusive interventions happen to your child without preparation can make them feel out of control and fearful. Explain in simple terms. For example, “Honey, you are going to get a shot in your leg and it’s going to make you soooo sleepy. You might feel kind of funny, but it’s OK. Mommy is going to be here the whole time.”
4) Validate your child’s emotions and instill confidence. “This is so scary. I am here with you, I got you!”
After the emergency
1) Take time off. Your child needs your physical and emotional presence. You are your child’s most effective medicine. Be with your child and pile on the nurture and playfulness.
2) Talk about what happened and reiterate a sense of safety. Create a story or a narrative around the event while creating a picture of bravery and safety. Don’t forget to name all possible emotions your child may have felt.
3) If your child is young, use toys to help your child process the experience. Most toy stores have doctor kits with play medical supplies. Utilize baby or toddler dolls and put casts, band-aids, or wraps on the doll just as they are on your child. Talk about how the doll is brave and safe.
4) Be aware of triggers! If your child was taken to the ER in an ambulance, it’s possible the next time an ambulance goes by, your child will have a physical and emotional response. Don’t be afraid to address these in the moment to ensure their safety. You can say something like, “That’s an ambulance siren. That was so scary when you got hurt and had to ride in the ambulance. You are safe now, that ambulance is not for you. Your body is all better.”
5) Don’t expect your child to “get over it.” Every individual and child heals at their own speed. Seek out help from a professional counselor or psychologist if new challenging behaviors emerge, persist or affect daily functioning. Such behaviors may include the following:
• Problems sleeping (including nightmares) and eating.
• Separation Anxiety
• Emotional distress when reminded of the traumatic event
• Intense fear and avoidance of places that remind them of the traumatic event
• Repetitive play
As my family continues to cope and patiently wait for my daughter’s wounds to heal, I also remind myself to take care of me. I challenge my negative thoughts of blame. I call upon my friends and family for help and support. I eat, rest, and amplify the most important words spoken to me during this time, “She is going to be all right.”
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