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Traditional thinking used to be that sparing young children details about their operation or serious medical procedure was the best course of action. Many parents and carers saw this as a way of avoiding unnecessary stress for the child. Parents would then shoulder the burden of worry. All of which makes a lot of sense, given our need to protect our children.
The problem with this approach is that parents are always left wondering whether this is the best course of action. Sometimes it comes down to working out just how much information is the right amount of information. Medical staff have different views on this issue and often err on the side of less information being better than more.
So what does this research say?
A study earlier this year tried to answer the questions of how much information to give children. The results were really interesting. This study included 91 children and parents of children (between 3-13 years of age) about to have surgery. Prior to the operation, the researchers held an information session which included an interactive video about the specific procedure and a discussion with an allied health member. These sessions involved both parent and child. They then followed up the child and parent after the surgery and compared how they fared on various psychological measures. In this study, the researchers were very interested in symptoms of trauma in children post surgery.
Using all the information collected above, the researchers then compared the results of their participants to the results of children and parents who had been approached but opted out of the study. The results showed significantly higher rates of distress (post-operation) for children who did not receive the full information about their surgery. Even the younger children (3-5 year olds) had more positive outcomes in this study. The researchers noted that the findings in their study were consistent with previous studies focusing on children with HIV and with cancer.
Of course this study, like all studies has limitations. Firstly there was a wide range of surgical procedures that may have been a factor in recovery. The time in hospital also varied greatly. I suspect, level of parental stress and anxiety may have been a factor too.
How can we best help children?
What this study does show is that children are more resilient that we think they are. Even at a young age, they have capacity to process more information than we think they can about their treatment. What the emerging research is showing is that when children understand what is about to happen to them are less likely to experience psychological distress post surgery.
It’s something for us to think about as parents should our children ever need major medical intervention. It’s also something we should be talking through with their medical staff as we help them prepare for up and coming surgery.
As always you are very welcome to contact the Centre for information on our psychology service on 9274 7062.
Ref: Amichi et al (2019) Should parents share medical information with their young children? A prospective study. Comprehensive Psychiatry, vol. 88. Pages 52-56.