Talking to Your Child About Surgery

Talking to your child about surgery

When talking to your child about surgery, try using these child-friendly words.

Instead of saying: Try saying:
This part will hurt. This may feel uncomfortable.
The medicine will burn. Some children say they feel a very warm feeling.
The medicine will taste (or smell) bad. The medicine may taste different than medicine you’ve had before.
The doctor will cut you open, or make a hole. The doctor will make a small opening.
The needle goes (or pokes or sticks) into your vein. The needle will slide in under your skin and into your vein.
Size concept: As big as Size concept: Smaller than…
Time concept: As long as… Time concept: For less time than…
Quantity concept: As much as…  Quantity concept: Less than…

Adapted from the ACCH research project (Wolfer, Gaynard, Goldberger, Laidley, and Thompson, 1988)

Ideas for explaining specific surgeries

  • Ear Tubes: A surgery to place tubes to help your ears (ear aches, hearing)
  • Tonsillectomy: A surgery to help you swallow better
  • Adenoidectomy: A surgery to help with breathing while you sleep
  • Circumcision: A surgery to help with the extra skin on your penis
  • Hernia repair: A surgery to help with the lump or swelling in the (groin) area between your lower stomach and the top of your thigh.
  • Orchiopexy: A surgery to help the part of your body (testicle) that is supposed to be in the sack below your penis move to the right place
  • Cystoscopy: A surgery to help the doctor see how your bladder is working
  • Tympanoplasty: A surgery to help you hear better

Child-friendly words to use

Instead of saying: Try saying:
Stretcher A bed on wheels
Flush (your IV) Clean out/wash out by pushing a kittle bit of water through (here)
Alcohol/cleaning wipes This cleans your skin
IV IV means "into your vein" It’s a tiny tube that carries water (with vitamins or medicine in it) into your vein.
Catheter A small or tiny tube
Dressing/dressing change Bandages; clean, new bandages
Vitals How much you weigh, how tall you are, etc.
Take your vitals, or take your blood pressure Measure how fast your blood is flowing through your body; measure your… (through the sticker on your finger or the cuff on your arm)
NPO Nothing to eat or drink. Explain why, when, and for how long. "Why" need not include threats or specific risks involved. Say, "Your tummy needs to sleep too." or, "You’re more likely to get sick if you have any food or water in your stomach."
Gas, sleeping gas, or anesthesia Sleepy air for your body
Special sleep Different kind of sleep; different from a nap or sleeping at home