WARNING: Not telling your child about an upcoming surgery can hurt

In our recent post Teddy Bear Clinic-Demystifying Hospital we shared a few tips about how to approach an upcoming hospital visit, but when to tell your child? Can it be too soon, too late?

Caitlin Jackson, Child Life Specialist, specializes in supporting families as they prepare for and recover from surgery. She provides the following information from TMC for Children’s Child Life Services group.

When to tell your child:

Toddlers (1-3 years old)
Tell your child a day or two before. Toddlers are not able to understand the concept of time and may begin to worry if told too soon. It is normal for toddlers to become fussy and have behavioral changes before and after a procedure.

Preschoolers (3-5 years old)
Tell your child 3-5 days before the scheduled surgery. Too much time will allow fears and misconceptions to develop. Your child will be curious and will want to know what to expect.

School Agers (6-12 years old) 
Tell your child a week or two in advance. This will allow time to process the information and to develop and ask questions without allowing too much time for fears to develop. Your child needs details before, during and after the procedure.

Adolescents (12-18 years old)
Involve your teen in all aspects of planning for the surgery, including talks with the doctor. Allow teens to discuss and talk freely about their concerns. Allow them to maintain their independence and sense of control. Be supportive and honest.

You know your child best. Use your knowledge, along with the information you have gathered, to talk openly and honestly with your child. Discover what questions your child may have about surgery. How much and when to tell your child will depend on age and developmental stage, personality, past health care experiences, and understanding of the illness.

Caitlin adds that an expected stressor is less stressful than an unexpected stressor.