How do we talk to the children? Child life consultation to support the children of seriously ill adult inpatients.
Journal of palliative medicine | 18 Sep 2012
C Sutter and T Reid
Abstract Background: Families with young children often struggle to talk about and cope with a parent’s life-threatening illness and potential death. Adult interdisciplinary palliative medicine teams often feel unprepared to facilitate the open communication with these children that has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and other behavioral problems. In pediatric settings, child life specialists routinely provide this support to hospitalized children as well as their siblings and parents. Although these services are the standard of care in pediatrics, no research reports their use in the care of children of adults with serious illness. Objective: Our aim is to describe a pilot child life consultation service for the children of seriously ill adult inpatients. Design: We summarize the support needs of these children, their families, and the medical staff caring for them and report our experience with developing a child life consultation service to meet these needs. Setting/Subjects: Our service assists seriously ill adult inpatients and their families in a university medical center. Results: Informal feedback from families and staff was uniformly positive. During consultations, family and child coping mechanisms were assessed and supported. Interventions were chosen to enhance the children’s processing and self-expression and to facilitate family communication. Conclusion: All hospitals should consider providing broad-based in-service training enabling their staff to improve the support they offer to the children of seriously ill parents. Medical centers with access to child life services should consider developing a child life consultation service to further enhance this support. More research is needed to evaluate both the short- and long-term clinical impact of these interventions. AA was a 54-year-old man with severe liver damage caused by blunt trauma during a farming accident months earlier. His course was complicated by hemorrhage, multiple infections, and surgeries, and ultimately multi-organ system failure requiring extensive life-sustaining interventions. The palliative care service was consulted by the intensive care unit (ICU) team 3 days prior to AA’s death. A family meeting was held with his wife, sister, and sister-in-law, during which they chose not to further escalate medical interventions. It was clear to all involved that AA was dying. It was equally clear that it would be hard to let him go. Foremost among his family members' many concerns was how they would talk to his three children, ages 7 to 15 years old, during a planned visit to the hospital. Struggling with her own sense of impending loss, AA’s wife needed emotional support and the words to tell her children that their father was going to die. The children needed help to hear and process those words. A child life specialist was consulted.
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