You've spoken with your child about your service member's severe injury, and now it's time for the first visit. Whether your child will be seeing your loved one at home or in the hospital, the experience will go more smoothly if you make some preparations ahead of time. You can rehearse the visit by describing what your child will see, hear and smell. It's also important to reassure your child that it's OK to feel frightened or sad and allow him or her to act on these emotions at home, where children feel safest. Although no one can predict how your child will react when first seeing a severely injured family member, planning ahead and supporting your child before, during and after the visit will set the tone for visits to come.
Your child's concerns
Children often have fears of which parents may not be aware. It's possible your child may have concerns such as these:
- The family member will no longer be able to care for or play with the child. This is especially true if it's a parent who was injured. It's a good idea to talk about what the family member can still do, such as read books out loud and play board games. You can also come up with specific ways the injured parent can participate in your child's activities, routines and accomplishments. The parent might call every night at bedtime to say goodnight or read a story. Or maybe the parent can help coach next season's baseball team.
- The injury is punishment for being bad. Explain that the family member was not doing anything wrong, but that sometimes in times of war, bad things happen to good people.
- The child will "catch" the family member's injury. Younger children especially may need to be reassured that the injury is not contagious.
Before the visit
There are concrete steps you can take to help your child prepare for the first visit to an injured family member. It can be a good idea to:
- Explain in age-appropriate language what to expect during the visit. If the family member is in the hospital, describe the scene for your child ahead of time. Be sure to talk about the medical equipment and what everything does ("There will be a tube in Daddy's arm so his body gets plenty of fluids."). For very young children, you might demonstrate with a doll or draw a sketch showing the placement of IVs and other equipment.
- Use accurate language when describing the family member's injury. This is especially important with young children, who tend to take things literally. If you say the loved one "lost a limb," the child may think it was simply misplaced.
- Describe how the family member looks. This is especially important if his or her appearance has changed - for instance, a shaved head, a lost limb or severe burns. Try to use simple, age-appropriate language when discussing the changes ("The burn on Daddy's face is very red. Some of it is covered with bandages now.").
- Reassure your child that the family member is still the same person. Even though he or she may look different, it’s important to reassure children that the family member hasn’t changed. Again, it's important to use simple, age-appropriate language ("Daddy's face looks different now, but he is still your same Daddy. He still loves you very much and likes to hear you sing.").
- Prepare your child for how he or she may feel upon seeing the family member. Your child may be frightened, sad or angry. Let your child know that all of these feelings are perfectly acceptable. Tell your child that it's OK to leave the room if he or she becomes too upset, and that you'll be right there for extra hugs. Be sure to prepare the injured service member for strong emotions from your child as well.
- Teach your child the vocabulary of the injury. Knowing words such as "prosthesis," "rehabilitation" and "physical therapy" can help take the mystery out of the experience for your child and help him or her feel more in control.
- Arrange for your child to meet with the family member's medical team. This can happen either just before or after the visit. Your child may have questions about the injury or rehabilitation process that the team can answer in age-appropriate ways.
During the visit
Here are some steps you can take during the visit to help ease the stress for your child:
- Schedule the visit for a time when there is no other business to take care of. That way, if your child becomes frightened or bored you can cut the visit short.
- Let your child know that it's OK to touch or hug the family member (assuming that it is).
- Take your cues from your child. If your child doesn't want to go near the family member, don't force it. Depending on your child's age and personality, it could take a while to adjust to the change.
- Give your child something to bring. A drawing to tape to the wall, a photograph to keep next to the bedside or flowers for the bedside table can help your child feel as though he or she is doing something to make the loved one feel better.
- Fill the time as much as possible. It will be easier for the family to relax during the visit if you bring a book for you or your child to read out loud; a board game, such as checkers; completed schoolwork; or a photo album to look through. Doing these activities together and with the injured service member can help everyone feel more comfortable and reinforce the relationships among family members.
- Keep the visit short. Younger children may become bored and older children may feel uncomfortable if the visit seems to go on too long.
- Give your child a way to opt out of a visit. Your child may not be ready for the visit, but feel guilty saying so. Tell your child that it's OK not to go just yet, but suggest that he or she make a special drawing or write a letter for you to bring. The gesture will help your child feel better about staying home. Find ways to keep the connection between your child and the family member alive - through email, telephone calls and letters. It's important for the service member to stay involved in the child's routines as much as possible.
After the visit
Even if you prepare your child thoroughly beforehand, he or she may still react intensely to the visit. Often these reactions are unpredictable and changeable. After the visit, make sure to:
- Keep an eye on your child. Look for signs that your child was overly disturbed by the experience and is not coping well.
- Watch out for behavior changes. Keep in mind that younger children may become clingy and return to old habits and behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. Older children may suffer physical symptoms, including headaches and stomachaches; become irritable or aggressive; do poorly in school; and engage in risk-taking behaviors. If any of these behaviors continue for several weeks, seek out the advice of a professional who can help your child cope with the changes in his or her life.
- Talk to your child's teacher. Your child's teacher may notice changes in behavior before you do. You can work with the teacher to help your child through this difficult time.
- Let your child know that it's OK to talk about his or her feelings. Do this by talking about your own feelings. If you notice behavior changes, be sure to encourage younger children to draw pictures of how they feel inside, and reassure your child that you are there to provide help and support.