Surgery: Talking to your child

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As a parent, you can help your child if you learn as much as possible about their condition. You should also try to model calm behaviour and explain to your child what is going to happen using words they can understand.

Key points

  • Parents know their child best and they have a role to play in preparing their child for surgery and their hospital stay.
  • Learn as much as you can about your child's condition and what they will experience. Do not be afraid to ask questions and to use hospital resources such as the library.
  • What you say and the words you use with your child to explain what is going to happen will depend on their age and level of understanding.

What can parents do to help their child?

When a child needs surgery, parents often feel anxious and may even fear for the safety of their child. But as a parent, you are not powerless. While surgeons and other expert staff perform the operation itself, you have a role too.

You can help prepare your child for everything from their hospital stay to their healing after the operation. You know your child better than anyone. That knowledge and just being the parent makes you qualified to help.

What you do and say to prepare your child for their surgery will depend most on their age and how much they can understand. But there are three general strategies parents can use to benefit their child.

Model the right tone: be calm and brave

How children behave is often modeled by those around them — especially their parents. If you show your anxiety and fear, your child is more likely to model the behaviour. In other words, they will become fearful and anxious as well. If, despite real worries, parents can remain calm and brave, the child is more likely to do the same.

This is not always easy. Just try to remind yourself that your child is very good at noticing your feelings and this can have an impact on how your child copes with being in the hospital waiting for an operation.

Learn as much as you can

One way to help keep your fears and anxieties in check is to arm yourself with knowledge. Learn as much as you can about your child's condition, the operation, and what recovery is expected to be like. Also, find out what your child is likely to experience before, during and after the operation. Often, fear and anxiety come from the unknown. Once you find out about things, even if it is not the best news, you will feel better - much better than not knowing at all.

Depending on how long and how complex the operation is, coming to an understanding about what is going on and what is likely to happen may take some work. But this is not something you have to do on your own. The doctors, the surgeon, the anaesthetist, and the nurse will each explain to you their role in your child's treatment.

Use the hospital's resources

Many hospitals have small libraries with staff to help you learn. Before operations, you will likely have a pre-operative appointment with those who are taking care of your child. Some hospitals have a pre-surgical program to help you learn more about the surgery, your child's condition, and the hospital itself. The hospital may also have a parent-friendly website or written pages about your child's condition and operation.

Even knowing a little more makes it easier to ask questions and speak with those caring for your child. This will reduce any fear and anxiety you may have about your child's experience.

What you should be told

In plain words, the hospital staff will let you know what is expected before, during and after the surgery. The risks and possible outcomes of the surgery will also be explained. You should be told whether your child's medicines need to be stopped before the operation and what tests your child will need to have before the operation.

What you should be asking about

Do not be afraid to ask any question. People often bring a friend or family member to take notes, ask questions you didn't think of, and help you understand.

In general, you want to ask about pain relief for your child, about eating and nutrition, and about your child's expected recovery. You should also ask about what will happen over a longer period of time. A list of questions that should be answered is included at the end of this page.

If there are things you read or hear that you don't understand, ask to have this explained to you again.

Once you understand the operation, you will be asked to sign a consent form to allow the surgeon to perform the surgery on your child.

How you explain it to your child depends on their age

Now that you have good knowledge of your child's situation, you can explain it to your child. How, how much, and when you do this depends on your child's age, their level of understanding, and how they usually cope with situations that are new or stressful.

At minimum, all children except infants should be told they are going to the hospital to have an operation. Parents should also give some basic information about what being in the hospital will be like and when they get to come home. Most children over three years will be able to understand a simple explanation.

You know how much information your child can handle and understand. It's a good idea to let the doctors and nurses know this. That way, you and the staff are all working together and everyone is ready for your child's reactions before, during and after the operation.

When talking with your child be calm and honest

Being honest and using simple explanations your child can understand are the best ways to put your child at ease. Ask your child what they know and if they have any questions. This way you will be able to clear up any wrong information they may already have.

Remember, though you may be nervous or anxious, your child does not have to know that. If you encourage them and give them the opportunity to do so, your child may even end up thinking of the whole experience as an adventure.

Quick Do's and Don'ts


  • Make sure your child understands the operation will help them get better.
  • Tell your child when they will have the operation and how long they will be at the hospital.
  • Let your child know when they will be able to stay with them and how often they will visit.
  • Get some books with stories about hospitals to help them understand more about going to the hospital.
  • If they can, ask your child to draw a picture about going to the hospital and write the story as they tell it to you. Then talk about the picture or read the story with your child.
  • Play "hospital" with puppets, dolls, and stuffed animals before and after the operation. This can help your child understand and cope with the experience and will let you know how your child is feeling.
  • Bring a favourite toy, doll, soother, or blanket to the operating room and let you child know it will be there when they wake up after the operation. Your child may enjoy helping you pack these items before coming to the hospital.
  • Explain to your child they will not feel, hear, or see anything during the operation because of a special "sleep medicine" called anaesthetic. They will not wake up during the operation but will wake up after it is over. Because many children have heard about a pet being "put to sleep" and never waking up again, try not to use these words to describe the sleep medicine. Or explain to your child that these are two separate things.


  • Do not give answers to questions you don't know the answers to. If you aren't sure how to answer your child's questions, tell them that you don't know but will find out. You can write down the questions and ask your child's nurse or doctor for more information.
  • Do not make promises that you may not be able to keep about the operation and the hospital. By giving accurate information only, your child will more easily adapt to any changes and be more trusting.
  • Do not promise your child that there will be no needles. Most children in hospital do have a needle at some time. Tell your child that they will learn some ways to make it easier to have a needle.
  • Do not promise your child that they will have no pain. Children have different amounts of discomfort after operations. Fear of pain is probably the most common fear about having an operation. Tell your child they will be given medicine for pain and learn other ways to make pain go away.

Questions you may want to ask

  • Who can help me and my child prepare for surgery: doctor, nurse, clinical nurse specialist, child life specialist, social worker, preparation program nurse coordinator?
  • Who will be the doctor in charge?
  • How long will the operation take?
  • Where will I wait during the operation?
  • How will I know when the operation is over?
  • Where will my child be when I first see her?
  • How can I best help my child after the operation?
  • When can my child eat?
  • How will my child's pain be managed after the operation?
  • Will my child need rehabilitation or therapy after the operation? What will be involved?
  • When will my child be ready to go home?
  • How long will it be before my child can go back to school or out to play?
  • How much time will I need to take off work to look after my child?
Last updated: May 20th 2010