Child Life Specialists and How They Help
By Melissa Lusk, CCLS
Published 3/28/2018, Updated 2/9/2023
Every parent dreads telling their children bad news. As the parent of a child with a life-changing illness or injury, you will be faced with many difficult conversations. From preparing your child for shots to getting her ready for an MRI or surgery, it is difficult to know what to say, where to begin. Luckily, there are members of the healthcare team called Certified Child Life Specialists who can help.
What is a Child Life Specialist?
A Child Life Specialist (CLS) is a member of your care team who helps make the hospital feel more normal while preparing your child for what they may encounter. Child Life Specialists have a strong background in child development, understand the impact of a hospitalization on children and their families, and use play to teach children about scary medical procedures.
What Do Child Life Specialists Do?
Certified Child Life Specialists may engage in a variety of activities with you and your child to improve the hospital experience. They provide therapeutic play, preparation for procedure, and education that reduce fear, anxiety, pain, and suffering for patients and their families. They may also direct you to additional resources, like CopingSpace, for further support.
5 Ways Certified Child Life Specialists Help Children and Families
Below are five key ways a child life specialist can help you and your family navigate your child’s healthcare journey.
A Child Life Specialist Makes the Healthcare Environment Comfortable
A hospital can be a scary place, with strange noises and weird looking machines. With so many different people entering the room, it is oftentimes hard for you to remember what they all do. Child life specialists offer programs and play opportunities that provide normalcy during your child’s stay. They may bring teaching toys to play with at the bedside, do activities in a playroom or set up visits from special guests and hospital volunteers.
CLSs Teach About A Child’s Diagnosis, Medical Tests and Procedures
Child life specialists use developmentally appropriate words and teaching tools to help children learn about their illness, as well as prepare them for upcoming medical tests or procedures. In age related terms, they explain what role your child has in the process. For example, when the nurse is checking their temperature they may tell your child that their job is to put the thermometer under their tongue and leave it there until they hear a beep.
Certified Child Life Specialists Provide Distraction and Coping Tips
Child life specialists work with your child and your family to help identify positive coping strategies that can be used when a child is in pain or to distract them during a procedure. This can include teaching your child deep breathing exercises and mindfulness, or providing music, games or other toys.
A Child Life Specialist Offers Sibling Support
A serious illness or injury impacts the entire family. Routines are shifted as the family focus turns to taking care of the child with the illness or injury. Siblings often feel jealous, scared, angry and isolated. Some will begin to have behavioral issues. Child life specialists help support siblings by preparing them in some of the same ways as they do their brother or sister. They use developmentally appropriate explanations and teaching tools to help the siblings understand everything that is happening.
Child life specialists also connect with you, the caregiver, to help you understand how the sibling may act. They will work with you to best help all your children during this difficult time. This may include preparing activities to help with separation anxiety, thinking about ways to connect the siblings with their brother or sister at the hospital, and recommending other services designed specifically for siblings, such as JustSibs, SuperSibs! or Sibshops.
Certified Child Life Specialists Help Caregivers Cope
Child life specialists are there to help you too! Children look to their parents for answers, as well as comfort during difficult times. If a parent is stressed, children can sense that and may feed off those emotions. Child life specialists can help ease those feelings by addressing your concerns, helping you understand what to expect and discussing ways you can help your child(ren) cope. They may give you scripted verbiage on how to answer your child’s question about their illness, upcoming tests and procedures. Or they might help you address the many feelings that they may have.
Remember, you need not be alone in this journey. Reach out to your Child life specialist. They can help you and your family not only survive but even thrive along the way.