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.
Drama, Gossip and Blatant Disrespect
Something that a practicum or internship can’t really prepare you for going into this career are the politics, workplace drama/gossip, disrespect, and the lack of leadership that can occur. Some child life specialists have said that these environmental factors have caused them to burn out faster than any patient/family interaction or experience.
There can be so much gossip in the workplace, as with any job, but it’s important for child life specialists to remain impartial to the variety of patients and families we work with; everyone has different ways they may choose to raise their child – and it’s imperative that one always brings compassion, empathy and the ability to educate the team members of these key values. Judgments will do nothing helpful in working with different people. Meeting each patient and family where they are and providing the appropriate education is exactly what child life specialists are trained to do.
Child life is still so “new” to a lot of staff, patients, and families even though it’s been around for decades. The disrespect can be palpable – especially for child life specialists piloting programs in new parts of the hospital setting. Do not be mistaken though; the disrespect is still happening for a lot of child life programs that have been around for 20+ years.
One child life specialist stated the importance of realizing how unrealistic it is for your workplace dynamics to be perfect and for everyone to like you – no matter how likable you are or how helpful your child life interventions can be.
When I was piloting our child life program down in our surgery department, I worked really hard for our children to not be given any sort of medication (versed) prior to their procedure. I strived to empower children with the knowledge, tools, and coping mechanisms to separate from their parents (we don’t offer parental presence in the OR – yet), and do their job well (hold still and breathe in “sleepy medicine”). I was feeling extremely proud after slowly building rapport with a 2-year-old female patient. She was, at first, extremely hesitant to play/speak to me. I continued to return to her pre-op room with toys, pictures of the OR, a wagon ride, and stuffed animals. I successfully took her back to the OR with no tears during the separation from her parents, completely trusting me as she rode the wagon and jumped into my arms before breathing in the sleepy medicine flawlessly.
I thanked the medical team prior to excusing myself from the OR to prepare/support my next patient once my 2-year-old was asleep. The anesthesiologist yelled across the OR as I was about to leave and asked disrespectfully, “You gonna go “chart” that or something?” The whole OR erupted in laughter at the thought of me charting this patient experience.
That’s ONE example I have personally, of a palpable, disrespectful experience with someone on the medical team. There are so many more. One must have a strong back bone and be able to have some things roll off the back while other things are deemed as important to address.
Three years later and this anesthesiologist wouldn’t dare think of doing an induction for surgery without child life presence.
It’s okay for someone to not like you as long as it doesn’t interfere with patient care.
On The Flip Side…
Here is an example of when it DOES interfere with patient care and how to handle that.
One child life specialist shared how a nurse thought that this child life specialist was “overstepping her boundaries” when she would encourage parents to be present for procedures because the *nurse* did not like having parents present. It wasn’t about the child life specialist – it was about the nurse’s uneasiness with doing procedures while parents were present. This is an example where a hard conversation needs to be had as it’s affecting the patient’s care. It took this child life specialist over a year for this nurse to finally be comfortable calling this child life specialist for help with interventions, knowing she was going to advocate for parental presence.
It took a lot of conscious effort and hard work – and that’s what child life is all about!
What Can We Do?
Continue to show empathy and kindness.
Learn how to stand up and advocate for your patients AND yourself.
Talk to a trusted co-worker when things become too overwhelming.
Ask for support from your team and if you’re a one-person program, find a child life specialist on the outside that you can call and vent to.
*one of my practicum students is now certified and is a one-person program. She knows that she can call me at the drop of a hat and talk to me about ANYTHING work-related since she doesn’t have that team dynamic that can be so important, especially as a child life specialist.
Continue to educate, especially with your actions (prep, education, distraction, normalization, etc) even when faced with trials and push-back.
And continue to do research on why certain things you’re getting push-back on are so important (comfort positions, parental presence, non-pharmacological pain management, developmental aspects, etc) and bring them to your management for support.
You got this!