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.
I think it goes without saying that this job can be emotionally heavy at times. We do bring a lot of the “fun” to the hospital, but there are some aspects of this job that are not readily talked about. I’m here to break that cycle and share a bit of what current Certified Child Life Specialists wish they had known before starting their careers.
We are subjected to so much emotionally heavy situations that there is a strong desire for a deeper mental health/crisis/trauma education. If you are a student, I encourage you to seek out webinars, educational experiences, and volunteerism that focuses on mental health. We desperately need more training in this area, and it is currently not a requirement. Get ahead of the game and pursue these experiences. They will serve you so well in the future.
Some hospitals will not pay you more if you have a master’s degree. That means that all that time and money you spent to be competitive for internships, may not serve you in your future job. Yes, your education will serve you so well, but you may not be compensated for that extra knowledge. A lot of child life specialists must work side hustles or second jobs in order to stay financially afloat.
You can expect to make close to what a teacher makes. You’ve heard teachers talk about not getting compensated what they deserve, right? That’s about what you will get paid starting out (does depend on location, but good example salary). I’ve always loved the quote to “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” To this day, I still believe that wholeheartedly. This is the reason I do my job – not the money.
Another heavy realization that needs to be addressed are the lack of job opportunities and security. When applying for jobs – you most likely will not be given a full-time job immediately following your internship. Seniority and working-your-way-up is seen often in child life. You’ll find the most luck applying for PRN (as needed) or part-time positions as a lot of full-time positions require you to have some “experience in the field”. The job opportunities are few and far between. The majority of child life positions will be found in children’s hospitals. Don’t live near a children’s hospital? You’ll most likely have to move to find one or create a position from the ground-up in your community.
You also won’t start out with a very consistent schedule. Something a lot of people don’t think about right away is the fact that the hospital never closes. It’s not like school where you get a summer break. It’s not even like government jobs where you get holidays off. You will work holidays. You will work weekends. You may even work nights depending on the unit (Emergency Department positions usually work night shift).
For people who have a set idea in their head of what their “ideal” job schedule will look like (9am-5pm, Monday through Friday), that is most likely not going to be fulfilled in child life; at least not right away. Child life hours are often not “ideal” or consistent.
In lieu of COVID… something to consider that we’ve never really had to think about before… what is your comfortability in the hospital setting during the current climate? Are you comfortable putting yourself on the frontlines during a deadly global pandemic? Some people will still say yes. Others, especially those with health conditions may say no. And that’s okay.
Another heavy realization is that your past experiences may bring up unexpected thoughts and feelings than you originally thought. One child life specialist shared her deep desire to work with children of adult patients. Due to her experience as a child of an adult patient, she felt strongly that her calling was to work with children that were experiencing similar things that she had as a child. She quickly discovered that population was too traumatic. It brought up too many feelings from her childhood that she knew she couldn’t work with them consistently and be in a healthy place mentally.
Lastly, those deep and trusting relationships you’ll create with your patients and families may end abruptly and that can can be really hard. This can be for a variety of reasons including death, end of treatment, or a patient moving away. This can leave you with a heaviness that you didn’t plan for. Taking care of yourself in the midst of sadness related to abrupt changes in patient relationships is important to implement.