Explaining Surgery to Your Child

Helping to prepare a child for surgery (along with choosing a great surgeon) is one of the most important things a parent can do when their child needs a surgical procedure. As a parent, it is up to you to make sure your child is properly prepared for the procedure, without being terrorized or traumatized by inaccurate information.  

Your surgeon may participate in getting your little one ready, but you will be responsible for explaining the information in a way that will prevent your little one from being terrified by the idea of surgery.  Easier said than done? Not necessarily. Children require far more emotional preparation for surgery than most adults and are much more easily confused by the information provided.

Father and daughter watching a digital tablet
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The simple tips offered here can make the process go more smoothly, without a great deal of effort. In fact, a child who has been given age-appropriate information and a realistic expectation of what will happen can be a wonderful surgery patient. The key is to provide information that your child can easily understand, without providing too much information, information that is incorrect or information that is confusing.

Talk to Your Child's Surgeon

If your child is not yet aware the surgery will be taking place, take the time to speak with the surgeon to obtain some basic information before you explain what is happening to your child. This way, you have answers to their questions when you do discuss the surgery.

When you are with the surgeon, there are important things you need to tell your surgeon about your child's health. Remember that the medical history of the mother may be as important as the health of the child. Questions pertaining to drug use may seem strange for an infant patient. But the questions truly pertain to the mother’s habits, unlike a teenager, who very well may have used drugs in the past.

When preparing for surgery, general information is of great help, in addition to information that is specific to the age of the child. Understanding the risks of surgery can help you make a more well-informed decision. Take the time to learn about anesthesia, including what type of anesthesia will be used, who will be providing the anesthesia and other information.

What to Say, and Not Say, to Your Child

Kids can view surgery very differently than adults. With an adult patient, the surgeon would not need to explain that the patient did not do anything wrong and their upcoming appendectomy is not a punishment for being bad. With children, there are things that need to be clearly stated that may be surprising for an adult.

Different Age Groups, Different Information

The preparation and discussions you will need to have with your child vary with their age. Teenagers, for example, can understand easily when a surgery has been scheduled weeks in advance. But a preschooler may ask, “Is my surgery tomorrow?” for weeks if he is told too soon, much like the "are we there yet" questions you may be familiar with. Conversely, a teen may not appreciate having a procedure described as “the doctor is going to look in your tummy and make you feel better,” and should be cautioned against getting surgery information from unreliable online sources that may provide inaccurate information.

The Final Step

Once you’ve made the leap and prepared your child for surgery it is time to step back and think about yourself for a moment. Don't forget to prepare yourself for your child's surgery. To be able to provide the best possible support for your child, take care of your own emotional, and sometimes physical (yes, you do need to sleep even if your child is having surgery), needs during what can be a stressful time. As a parent, you may benefit from learning how to cope with surgical anxiety as much as your child.

In the days leading up to surgery, your child will likely have some blood tests drawn. You may wonder why these are necessary and what the results mean. Learn more about tests that are common before surgery.

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  • Ages and Stages. Invest in Kids Canada. 2007.
  • Surgery Guide. Nationwide Children’s Hospital.