Hemby Children's Hospital
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Diagnostic teaching

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Your child trusts you to help them understand their surroundings


A visit to an emergency room or a stay in a hospital can create feelings of uncertainty. A child needs to feel safe and comforted during medical tests and when meeting new people, learning about an illness or injury, and receiving medical treatment. One of the most important ways to help your child cope is to explain the diagnosis or illness using simple words and concepts.

During this initial busy time, it can be difficult to find the words to explain all that is happening. Child life specialists can help provide clear, simple and nonthreatening information.

Explaining a diagnosis using language your child can understand often will prevent him or her from imagining something worse. Children who understand their diagnosis generally cope better with treatment and make positive adjustments. Children also may accept new responsibilities with more ease once they understand the reasons behind it. Some children may prefer to avoid talking about an illness. However, they may still worry and have questions. Avoiding the subject can make it worse. Using appropriate words will encourage your child to feel comfortable asking questions about an illness or treatment plan. This is a great opportunity to clear up common misconceptions for your child. Take time to address these concerns:

  • Misconceptions may arise based on a child’s ability to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Children often imagine circumstances are worse than they are.
  • Children might wonder if they did something to cause their illness, or if it is a punishment for something they did that they perceive to be wrong. Assure your child that he or she did not cause the illness.
  • Children often worry that they can give the illness to someone else. If the illness is not contagious, be sure to explain what causes the disease or illness.

Age-appropriate conversations make a difference


Here are some pointers for explaining an illness, based on a child’s age and developmental level. Remember, child life specialists are available to help with this process:

Toddler: Since the vocabulary of toddlers is limited, use words they can identify with. Toddlers are just learning their body parts. If they have an injury, you can point to the area or use the name of that body part. If the illness is in the blood, which may be unfamiliar, explain that you need to take your child to the hospital for medicine that can make him or her feel better. It is appropriate to use or teach words adults use.

Preschooler: Children at this age can start to learn about parts of the body, how we use them and why we need them. It is appropriate to start using the names of illnesses, medications and treatments.

Early school age: At this age, children are interested in details about how their bodies work. Appropriate terms and discussions about misconceptions are important.

School age: Many children are learning that our bodies are made up of cells. Continue to utilize appropriate terms, clarify misconceptions and provide details about the illness and treatment plan.

Teens: Include your child in medical discussions with doctors and caregivers. It is important to have open conversations and follow-up discussions about the illness and treatment plan.