Waiting while your young child is wheeled back into surgery is a nail-biting, soul-crunching experience. Most parents don’t get it. Most kids float through childhood without even a hint of needing surgery. And if you tell a parent of one of those kids—the uber-healthy ones–that you child needs surgery, watch out. You’ll be sure to get huge exclamations about how strong you are and how awful it is for someone so little to have to do something so painful. While these statements are true and always well meaning, as the parent with a surgery pending, you don’t feel strong, and you definitely don’t want to talk about how awful the experience will be for your little one. You just want to get it done.
Over the years, we have helped many people to recover after a traumatic medical treatment. But as we all know, preventing a trauma is always the preferable route. That's why we've developed a list of tips that we believe every parent should have before taking a little one into surgery.
Top 10 Things Parents Can Do To Cope With Your Child's Surgery
1. Give Yourself Permission
Parents expect and plan for their children to be uncomfortable. We pack their security blankets and the extra soft socks. We try to anticipate their every need. But you will have needs, too. Give yourself permission to meet your own needs while meeting your child’s needs. Sometimes even giving yourself permission to go to the restroom or leave the room to grab a bite in the cafeteria is hard, but if you want to be your best for your child, your needs are important, too. Meeting your own needs makes you a better parent, particularly during times of stress.
Going into surgery is scary. Sending your kid into surgery is terrifying. You are fully aware of all the possibilities for complications and none of them feel acceptable. During scary times like these, it is normal for your brain to provide intrusive thoughts about worst-case scenerios—graphic and detailed visions of your child in pain or worse. But to your brain, these images start a chain reaction of stress hormones in your body, almost as if you are going through it. You need to know these flashes are normal (not predictive) and are not helpful. Tell yourself to stop the parade of horrific images.
3. Bring A Distraction
Telling yourself to stop those visualizations of your child in distress is much easier said than done. Come prepared with something else to distract your mind while your baby is back there. If you like having something to do with your hands, consider bringing some knitting or a notepad to scribble. Bring a good book or sudoku--anything that will help you re-focus when you find yourself stuck in worry.
4. Take A Long-term Perspective
I have found that it is extremely easy to get lost in the moment during these stress times. And, yes, it’s important to take each moment as they come. But an image of your child in your arms, fully soothed and with a little smile on his/her face as he/she recovers can be a good reminder that this too shall pass. Better yet, see him/her playing again & happy. This way, the visualizations making your body feel as if it’s actually happening are working for good, not evil.
5. Make Friends With The Nurses
Let’s face it. The doctor is critically important to any surgery, but it’s the nurses that make or break the experience. They are the ones who spend the most time with you and your child. They are the ones who know how to get an extra Popsicle for your little man/lady or which doctor to approach about a necessary, but perhaps controversial treatment. I would not even be above bribing some good will with baked goods if it came down to it. Bottom line, you want the nurses to want to help you, so make sure you thank them and treat them with the respect they deserve.
6. Lean On A partner or Support Person
Having two people really is golden. It allows you to have some support. It provides two heads to keep track of all the details. It allows one of you to do the holding of your child while the other one is able to focus on talking to the doctor. It allows one of you to run out for food without leaving your child alone. Even if you are Super Parent of The Year, believe me, you will do better with help. So, if you are a single parent, ask a friend or family member to help out. And get creative if someone can't be present due to distance or COVID-19 restrictions. Just get them on the phone or text instead.
7. Bring Ear plugs/Ear Buds
If you’ve ever been in a recovery room, you know all that separates you from the person next to you is a thin sheet. Babies and kids coming out of anesthesia are prone to crying…loudly. If you are at all sensitive to sound, you might want to consider some earplugs or something to lower the sound. You will already be stressed and worried about your own kid. You don’t need to be also having a reaction to the kid (or kids) down the hall who are screaming and difficult to soothe.
8. Pack Items That Soothe The Senses
One of the things that makes people cringe the most when they are working through difficult memories of hospital experiences is the smells and other sensory issues. So, similarly to attending to your auditory senses in #7, this tip is about attending to the other senses. When you pack your bag, consider throwing in a nice smelling lotion or essential oil. Look through some beautiful pictures on your phone or bring something that feels soft or grounding. It doesn't have to be a ton of things, but bringing in some positive sensory experiences can help you to feel grounded.
I think most people know they will have to practice patience while they are waiting for their child to come out of surgery and wake from anesthesia. But have you considered how it will feel in the recovery room? Some recoveries are quick and miraculous. Some are tedious and fraught with complications. Either way, try to remember that every kid heals in their own way and things will eventually resolve.
10. Take A Night Out
Yes, that’s right. You need to remember that having your kid go through surgery is tough. Their needs are naturally going to be primary for a bit. But once the dust settles, make it a priority to get out on the town and blow off some steam adult-style. You’ve earned it.
All in all, a little forethought can be worth its weight in gold when your child is heading off to surgery. Most parents naturally do this for their kids, but don't forget to include some self-care! Your little one is depending on you to be calm and confident. And if, even with all this preparation, things still feel traumatic, our licensed clinicians are here to help.