Child Life specialists help care for the whole family

Care for the Whole Family: Child Life Specialists

When Ashlyn Strathman had surgery as a high schooler, it was a member of the hospital’s Child Life team who eased her nerves by giving the teen a hospital tour and teaching her relaxation techniques.

Today, with a master’s degree in Child Life Studies, Strathman works at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in a role that allows her and the others on her team to teach, heal, counsel, play with and serve as a towering source of emotional support and understanding to every family that walks in through the doors.

You’ll find Child Life specialists everywhere in St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital. They also are essential members of the pediatric health care team at BayCare’s St. Joseph’s Hospital-South and Mease Countryside Hospital. They stay beside patients receiving anesthesia so the child can have a comforting presence while they “fall asleep.” They receive panicked children coming out of ambulances in a trauma bay. They’ll reassure and calm patients as they are about to enter a CT scan.

6 Ways Child Life Specialists Care for the Whole Family:

They help prepare and support children for procedures.
“We give them the chance to ask questions, to see everything that will be used,” Strathman explains. She’ll let a young patient feel an IV catheter to understand that the needle will not stay inside the whole time. She offers children choices—to sit on a chair or on mom’s lap, or to choose a numbing spray or “buzzy bee” vibrating tool for pain management. “Choices help facilitate a sense of control over the medical experience for kids.”

They provide diagnosis education.
Whether having blood drawn or receiving a serious diagnosis, children benefit from age-appropriate teaching about what might be coming their way. To explain a cancer diagnosis to a 4-year-old, for example, Strathman might use Legos to show how each brick is like a cell in the body, and a clump of them together forms a tumor, which the doctor will remove.

They support the whole family.
If an older sibling is upset about a baby who has to stay behind in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, Strathman can show them pictures of what the NICU looks like. For a child who might worry about a sibling with an oxygen mask, Strathman can allow them to touch and explore the equipment to remove the sting of fear.

They allow kids to play.
“We can normalize the hospital experience for kids,” Strathman says. “Play is the language of children.” From iPads to stress balls, video games to “I Spy” books, Strathman and her colleagues use a variety of tools to keep kids engaged and distracted. For patients who may spend weeks or even months in hospital, play also helps meet crucial developmental milestones.

They plan special events.
So that kids who stay in hospital don’t miss out on fun milestones, Strathman and her peers plan everything from prom nights to Halloween and Gasparilla parades. They also organize visits from special guests such as Cinderella, Chewbacca or Santa Claus. Their favorite events? Clap-out parades for patients who get to go home after prolonged hospital stays.

They provide grief support.
If a child is brought in from a near-drowning or car accident, panicked parents might not be in the best state to help their other children. Strathman steps in to provide grief support and counseling to siblings, explaining what might happen and dealing with loss in gentle but honest, age-appropriate ways, such as by helping create handprint keepsakes.

When a child is enduring medical trauma, “it’s terrifying, and teens won’t often listen to mom,” says BayCare’s Amy Gall. When her son had to undergo an MRI scan at the hospital for a fractured vertebra, Gall was grateful to the Child Life Specialist who gave him a stress ball, answered all his questions (such as how long the wait and the scan would take), and even made sure she had his favorite music ready for when he put on his headphones for the procedure.

“A Child Life Specialist can be a safe and trusted person for kids anywhere in the hospital,” Strathman says. “Parents’ coping affects kids as well. We are there to support the whole family unit.”

*Presented by BayCare | Originally published in the March 2024 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.