Talking with your child about treatment

Talking with your child about medical treatment can be something parents think will upset or worry their child. However, often talking about it in a calm way can have the opposite effect, as it enables your child to understand it better, which means they are likely to worry less.

What do I say?

Even for young children, short, simple explanations, repeated at intervals, can help them to understand what is going to happen. A simple explanation might include:

  • the reason for the treatment
  • a description of the treatment and what the doctor will do
  • what might change
  • how your child might look or be able to do after treatment
  • reassuring your child that you will be there

Here is an example of talking with a young child:

‘Today we are going to go to the hospital. The doctors who look after you are going to have a look at your eyes and your head. We will come back next week and then you will stay in a bed next to other children for a couple of nights. One of us will stay in a bed next to you. The doctors are going to make your head bigger. They will give you some medicine to help you sleep. When you wake up we will be here and you will be sore but you will feel better soon…’

With slightly older children (5-12 years), you might want to work through the children’s factsheet on Finding out about treatments to give them a sense of involvement in the decision making process.

Or, with older children, you could both look at the adult factsheet Finding out more about your visible difference .

Although you obviously will want to reassure your child, remember to balance this with being honest about what you tell them. For example, if you know the treatment is likely to hurt, avoid saying it won’t be painful. At the same time you can reassure them that the doctors will give them medicine to manage this and that the pain will go away in time. Try to avoid saying the doctor is going to make them ‘all better’ or that their visible difference will be completely changed – stick to the facts, there are no total guarantees.

Use stories and play

For young children, reading, drawing, and using play can be useful ways to prepare them. For example, you might read stories about children or animals going to hospital, or you could draw a picture of the ward together, or you might ‘play’ hospitals. Hospital play specialists can also help, as can visits to the ward or unit where your child will stay.

Involving siblings

Involving the whole family and talking to siblings can be helpful. Again, it is good to stick to clear and simple explanations, or to read books or simple information sheets. Siblings will naturally be concerned, but also can be helpful to the child who is due to receive treatment by helping to explain and offering support and comfort.

Siblings can feel more involved through things like choice about when to visit, considering what they might like to take to the hospital, drawing a get well card or choosing a treat.

Siblings may feel anxious about their brother or sister’s wellbeing. Siblings can also feel anxious about being separated from their brother or sister, and from a parent. However, explaining why can help allay worried. For example, “Your sister needs me to be at the hospital for the next week. I will miss you, but I will talk to you everyday and I want to hear all about what you have been doing at school. I will see you after school on Wednesday and then I will be home on Saturday. If you want to talk to me you can ring me”. Parents can understandably feel very torn about being away from other children, but remember – you are doing your best for all your children.

How will my child react to being in hospital?

Children react in different ways to being in hospital. Babies under 8 months old can usually be more easily comforted by parents and nursing staff. However, toddlers may be more fearful of new places or find it hard to be restricted to their beds, rather than run around. Older children may feel anxious or upset.

Crying, not eating, withdrawing or having tantrums are natural responses to being in hospital. Although this may understandably cause you to feel concerned, these reactions will usually pass as your child adapts to the situation and environment. You can reassure your child just by being with them and helping them with their reactions. Most children adapt and become more familiar and comfortable with their surroundings in time, especially if they feel reassured. Staff on children’s wards are all too familiar with the challenges of keeping young children happy and often there are playrooms and toys to help you keep them entertained.

For more information on preparing for hospital you might find our Managing a hospital stay information helpful.

Finding out more about your child's condition


Decisions about my child's treatment


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