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How can I Prepare my Child for Surgery?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Most child psychologists, child life specialists, and pediatricians agree that it is important to prepare a child for surgery. All children are individuals, and this, as well as age, are two of the most important factors when one plans to prepare a child for surgery. Additional considerations involve including the child in decisions of a comfort nature, such as which tapes or stuffed animals to bring to the hospital.

Deciding which approach to take to prepare a child for surgery is primarily age-based. A child who is barely talking will have little sense of time. It is not valuable to tell your young child he/she will have surgery a month or so before the actual surgery date. Even the concept of “month” may be foreign.

Most children under the age of eight or nine probably do not benefit from knowing early, since this could mean they worry more. Child life specialists tend to recommend telling children under the age of 10 about a minor surgery approximately a week prior. Smaller children should probably not be told until about two days before. One can prepare a child for surgery that is major by telling those under 10 about two weeks prior, or occasionally a longer period before if the hospitalization after the surgery will be extensive.

While not listing a specific date, one can think ahead by signing up for a tour of the hospital, or through therapy to prepare a child for surgery. Younger children benefit from play therapy with a child life specialist, social worker, or psychologist who specializes in children with medical conditions. Play therapy with dolls, like doctor and children dolls, can help a child vent frustration. Playing with medical equipment like tubing, oral syringes and oxygen masks may help the very alien world of the hospital seem less intimidating when the child is hospitalized.

Teenagers may not find their parents the best resources for help when they need surgery. Many hospitals offer groups for teens undergoing surgery or medical treatments, which may be an excellent auxiliary assistance to prepare a child for surgery. Talk therapy on a one to one basis, or in family therapy may also be helpful.

The older teenager is more likely to want to know sooner, but also more apt to have complex worries and concerns about surgery. Helping to prepare a child for surgery, who is an older teen, should begin with education about the surgery. Particularly if the teenager has a condition that requires more than one surgery or hospitalization, the parents’ goal must also be helping the child to become conversant with his or her condition. The education should stop when the child shows signs of distress regarding details, and should be instigated primarily by the teenager.

A parent can assist understanding by gathering resource materials on the type of surgery or the teen’s condition. Resource materials may also prove helpful to prepare a child who is younger for surgery. Simple books for preschool aged children like Curious George Goes to The Hospital or Mr. Rogers Talks about the Hospital can help the child grasp the different things he or she will see and experience when hospitalized.

Perhaps the most important aspect when one plans to prepare a child for surgery is the parent’s calm delivery of information. Caregivers of a child are generally experiencing extreme anxiety, but this should never be the burden of the child. If you cannot make it through an explanation without crying or sounding worried, then seek counseling for yourself.

If necessary, rely on the child’s doctor or therapist to help you explain the situation. As well, though this is a time when you will need support for the worry you feel, do not converse with others about the surgery in front of the child, since you will be more apt to express your concern, and cannot control the response of others.

When talking to a child, aim for fact based, not emotion based explanations. This is difficult to do, and most parents find they are not completely successful. Many hospitals offer guides for parents to introduce this topic, and for help on what to say. If your explanation has to be somewhat scripted, that is fine. The goal is to give the child the information he or she needs to know, without creating unnecessary anxiety.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon3151 — On Aug 14, 2007

my son is due to go under for a general anesthetic, he is an asthmatic, is this a really big risk or should he be okay, this is being done for dentistry

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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