What is Child Life?

by Margaret Nellis, Child Life Manager, MS CCLS

child life group
Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital Child Life Team

Parents and children all interact with the health care system—it could be a visit to the doctor, a visit to the pediatric emergency room, or a planned hospitalization due to surgery. How a child copes with that experience depends on the health care provider who cares for him or her at that time and of course, how you as the parent or caregiver is prepared for that doctor visit or hospital stay.

A child relies on the provider and you for comfort. For a child, the excessive anxiety and stress related to illness, separation from family, friends and school during hospitalization, and medical encounters can be emotionally damaging and interfere with the child’s response to medical treatment and care. Major interruptions in a child’s life can foster dependency and reduce self-esteem and may also jeopardize the child’s growth and development. Through the use of play and other forms of communication, a Child Life Specialist helps reduce the stress and enable children and caregivers to cope with these experiences.

At Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, the Child Life Specialists work as members of an interdisciplinary team, which may include doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, and many more helping hands. Collaboration with the team allows Child Life Specialists to advocate for your child’s needs as well as the needs of your family. A Child Life Specialist wants to help make your family’s experience at the hospital a positive one. The child life staff members work with children of all ages, from newborns to teens, and throughout the hospital from outpatient clinics and the emergency department to inpatient units and surgery areas. They work directly with you and your child to help relieve tension, express concerns and fears, and allow you to feel more in control of the hospital experience or clinic visit.

So you may be wondering…

What exactly can Child Life Specialists do for my child and my family?

• Explain a diagnosis or treatment in words your child or teen can understand
• Create a coping plan for your child to use during a medical test or procedure
• Offer support during and after medical procedures
• Use age appropriate play and educational tools to help your child understand what is going on and provide ways to express feelings to foster a sense of control
• Work with the medical staff to assess your child’s unique needs
• Offer bereavement support to help families and siblings cope with death or loss
• Provide you with information on child development and the effects of health care experiences
• Advocate for your needs as a parent and help you get the answers you need so you can best support your child

When should I ask for a Child Life Specialist?

When your child or teen:
• Has a medical procedure that is challenging for him/her
• Shows significant changes in behavior
• Experiences long or repeated hospital stays
• Needs help to understand and process what is going on
• Has a difficult time coping with his/her hospitalization
• Faces a life altering or life threatening illness
• Worries about going to the doctor or getting a shot

You, as a parent or caregiver can ask a pediatrician or nurse for a referral to a child life specialist if you believe your child could benefit from child life services or if you as the caregiver would like to learn more about resources that you could use at home to prepare your child for a doctor visit or upcoming surgery. If your child is hospitalized, the child life specialist on your child’s hospital unit will visit you and your child to assess his/her needs. A referral will not be needed and there is no charge for child life services.

Child life services are endorsed by the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the following information is an excerpt from the AAP policy on Child Life Services:

“The child life specialist focuses on the strengths and well-being of children while promoting their optimal development and minimizing the adverse effects of children’s experiences in health care or other potentially stressful settings.”
(Pediatrics vol.118, No.4, Oct 2006)

Child Life Specialists hold bachelors and/or master’s degrees in child life, child development, education, psychology or a related field. Required internships provide special training in the needs of hospitalized children of all ages. Child Life Specialists are certified through the Child Life Council. To learn more about the Child Life Profession visit www.childlife.org. If you would like to know more about the child life services available at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, visit us at www.upstate.edu/gch/kids/childlife.

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