What I Wish I Knew: Patients and Procedures Edition

The idea of “child life” is appealing to a lot of people. I hear it often from staff, patients and families –

“You get to play all day?! THAT’S your job? Lucky you!”

And they’re not wrong. A lot of what I’m trained to do is engage children in developmentally appropriate play – whether that’s to normalize their hospital experience, provide medical play before a procedure, distract during the procedure, or teach them some coping techniques in a playful manner.

I do a lot of playing.

Unfortunately, a lot of people pursuing the field sometimes wind up in this job not realizing the entirety of what child life truly can be. I have collaborated with a number of Certified Child Life Specialists via Facebook and asked them what they wish they knew prior to starting this job.

I asked them what kind of situations and experiences shocked them. I’m eager to share their responses with you.


Please note that some of these situations or experiences may be things you’ve never considered could be a part of a child life specialist’s job duties.
That’s okay. While every day may not be sunshine, rainbows and butterflies – not every day is like this either. Any job is going to have good/bad parts to it. This is just my way of sharing these parts of the job in a transparent way so that you are aware that we do so much more than play.
The child life specialists that I asked these questions to are still active and working in the field. So while it may be the not-so-good parts of child life, they are able to process these things and continue to do the good work that child life provides to patients and families every day.

Patient Experiences

The patients you will meet throughout your time as a child life specialist are so special. However, some patients or procedures can be difficult to see or understand. The biggest one that was repeated and echoed was our work with victims of child abuse.

Sometimes children come to the hospital for what, at first, appears to be a simple broken bone. After a full-body bone scan, it is shared that this child has multiple broken bones – some from months/years ago. It can hurt to know that they have been hurt. Same goes for supporting during sexual abuse/neglect exams. Those are scary and vulnerable procedures for children and it is so important for a child life specialist to be present, no matter how difficult it may be emotionally as the supporter.

Some patients will come to the hospital, especially into the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, after a traumatic injury. They child may be in a coma, have deformed body parts, loss of limbs, or other traumatic physical or mental disabilities that they didn’t have prior to their accident. It’s important for child life specialists to learn what children were like before their accident. This can be therapeutic for families to share what their child was like or to show staff how far their child has come from their initial accident. “All About Me” worksheets and hanging up pictures/posters around a child’s hospital room can be therapeutic activities to engage the family and friends of the child.

Procedural Experiences

As for medical procedures, some may be surprising. You’ll have your usual IV starts, MRI scans, or stitches, but have you considered a roach in a child’s ear or maggots in a wound? The nature of the injury that brings someone to the hospital can also be devastating, such as gunshot wounds, house fires, or drownings.

The intriguing part about child life is that every day is different. It can be fun to have something new to experience or do every single day rather than get stuck in the mundane routines often found in other jobs. On the flip side of that, these new experiences can be traumatic.

A healthy self-care regimen is what I will echo throughout this blog series as something that can help you process, cope and get ready for the next day ahead of you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s