Painful procedures and operations - how can parents help?

Painful procedures and operations - how can parents help?

As a parent you know your child best. You can help staff to help your child cope with the procedure or surgery.

Key points to remember

  • as a parent you know your child best, and so can help staff to help your child cope with the procedure or surgery
  • be honest and calm when telling your child about the procedure and answering their questions
  • decide on which coping strategies you and your child think would be most helpful
  • it is generally helpful for a child to have a parent present during a painful procedure and/or when your child wakes up after surgery
  • if you feel unable to be present, think about arranging for another person your child is comfortable with to be present

How can parents help?

As a parent, you know your child best and so can help staff to help your child cope with the procedure or surgery.

Sometimes medical procedures can be threatening and/or painful for children and young people. Hospital staff will always try to reduce your child's anxiety and pain to make medical procedures as stress free as possible.

As a parent, you know your child best so can help staff to help your child cope with the procedure or surgery.

Things you can do

Talk to your child's doctor

Talk to your child's doctor about the procedure/operation. Be sure to ask any questions that you or your child may have.

Give your child simple and honest information

Give your child simple and honest information. A good guide is to answer the 5 Ws:

  • who?
  • what?
  • where?
  • when?
  • why?

For example, Dr X will be doing Y in the outpatients department tomorrow afternoon to fix your arm.

Talk about the procedure before the day it happens

Provide this explanation wherever possible before the day of the procedure - taking into account your child's temperament and developmental age.

Answer questions

Answer any questions that your child may have. If you don't know the answer to your child's questions try to find out (for example, tell them that you don't know, but together you will ask the doctor or nurse).

Bring your child's comfort toys

It is usually helpful to bring your child's comfort toys or things whihc help them relax. For example, a teddy, dummy, blanket, book, a phone with a favourite game. These familiar items are comforting.

Be there during the procedure if possible

It is very helpful for a child to have a parent present during a painful procedure and/or when your child wakes up after surgery. If you feel unable to be present, think about asking another adult who your child is comfortable with to be present.

Use distraction to help reduce pain and anxiety

Research has shown that distraction is helpful in reducing pain and anxiety during procedures. Distraction involves helping your child to focus on things other than the medical procedure; for example, blowing bubbles, looking at picture books, watching a DVD, playing an app or playing with other favourite toys, or singing familiar or silly songs.

Try relaxation strategies

Use of relaxation strategies can also be very helpful but it is important that they are practiced beforehand at home. There are many ways to relax. Some of these include:

  • slow breathing techniques
  • guided imagery: this may involve your child picturing themselves in a favourite place and imagining what they can see, hear, feel, taste and smell
  • muscle relaxation techniques: starting to relax body parts starting from the toes and working slowly up to the head
  • listening to music (if your child needs to be still, keep the music relaxed and slow)

Give praise

Praise your child for any attempts at using helpful coping strategies. For example, you could say:

  • you used your listening ears
  • you are doing great slow deep breathing
  • you used your words to tell us
  • what a great job you're doing spotting all the stars
  • you kept your arm still
  • I liked the way you blew and popped the bubbles

Let your child know it's OK to feel upset

If your child cries, let them know that it is OK to feel upset. Your child does not need to be brave.

Give your child some choices  

It can be helpful to give your child some control over what is happening (for example, whether to sit on the bed or a parent's lap for the procedure; what distraction to use during the procedure; who will talk to them during the procedure). These choices need to be discussed with the nurse and/or doctor first as they need to be real choices that can be followed through with.

For children over 3 years of age it can also be helpful to provide them with a job during the procedure so they can focus on what they need to do – rather than what they can't do. (For example: Your job during the blood test is to keep your arm still).

Talk about the procedure afterwards

It is good to talk with your child about the procedure afterwards; especially about what your child did that helped them cope. Some children may want to draw a picture about the experience. This helps your child better understand what happened and may make it easier if more procedures are needed in the future

Did you know?

There are a group of principles which recognise the particular needs of children and young people receiving health and disability support services. They describe what every child and young person receiving these services should have access to. In particular, see: 

Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand acknowledge the cooperation of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney Children's Hospital at Randwick, and Kaleidoscope - Hunter Children's Health Network in making this content available to patients and families.

This page last reviewed 19 January 2017.
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