What is the Role of a Child Life Specialist

Author: Courtney Misher, MPH, BS R.T.(T)
Content Contributor: Melanie Eisenhower, MS, CCLS
Last Reviewed:

A child life specialist is a certified professional who works with children and their families to reduce stress and anxiety tied to being in the hospital. One of the most important roles of a child life specialist is teaching a child about their diagnosis based on the child's age and level of understanding. Child life specialists also explain methods and medical terms, provide emotional support during procedures, and make sure children are on track developmentally. Some of the ways a child life specialist can support you and your child: 

  • Getting ready for tests or procedures. 
  • Coping and distraction. 
  • Behavioral Interventions (e.g., reward good behavior; prevent negative behavior).  
  • Family support; support for brothers and sisters. 
  • “Play” that fits your child’s level of understanding. 
  • Therapeutic play (e.g., role-playing and storytelling). 
  • Medical play (e.g., playing doctor with dolls, using syringes in water play, or letting children play with medical equipment).  
  • Support for grief and loss. 

How can a child life specialist help my child? 

When your child is sick, their normal activities and relationships are disrupted. This can lead to fear and stress. Child life specialists use a number of techniques called therapeutic interventions, to reduce this stress and anxiety for your child. They do this by giving your child chances to take part in normal day-to-day activities. Some examples are: 

  • Patient stories/scrapbooking. 
  • Video diaries. 
  • Photo projects. 
  • Self-esteem building. 
  • Sticker charts for behavior. 

You can help your child along with the child life specialist. Below are some ways you can support your child. 

Before and During Tests or Procedures 

When you are supporting your child before or during a test or procedure, it is important to be honest, positive, and encouraging. Pay attention to how your child reacts and give them reassurance. Children do well when their feelings have been acknowledged. Speaking in a calm and quiet voice is helpful.  

Getting your child ready for what to expect during a hospital experience is important because it: 

  • Lowers fear and anxiety. 
  • Clears up misconceptions. 
  • Makes a trusting bond between your child, you, and the medical staff. 
  • Gives your child a sense of control over the experience by taking part in their own care.  

Other techniques that child life specialists use are deep breathing, giving choices, and letting the child have some control over the situation.  

Using Language Your Child Can Understand 

When communicating with your child, it is important to know how easily language can be misinterpreted. Child life specialists are trained to not use certain words or to make clear how the words are used in the medical field. This helps your child have a better sense of medical terms and what they mean for them. Some examples of these words are:  

  • Shot or IV 
  • Put to sleep 
  • Dye 
  • Burning 
  • Pain medicine 
  • Taking blood 
  • Flush

Connecting with Your Child

The child life specialists use a friendly approach to try and connect with your child by learning their interests and by being consistent. Many of the techniques that child life specialists use depend on the child’s age or development level. You can take clues from them to help you give support when the child life specialist is not around. 

Future of Child Life Specialists 

Child life specialists are largely found in children’s hospitals. As the field grows, many specialists hope child life will be available in all medical settings that involve children. Having a child life specialist can help the whole team to meet the emotional, developmental, and cultural needs of children and their families.

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