November 2022 marked my 10th year as a Certified Child Life Specialist.  

I’ve been commonly asked what I do for a living at social gatherings- and after all these years, I still struggle to find a way to truly convey all that this profession encompasses. Oftentimes, the person you are explaining Child Life to will still refer to you as a nurse, a social worker, or a title more mainstream in the public eye.  It’s understandable, and I don’t mind advocating and educating others about something I’m so passionate about. But ultimately, Child Life is the type of role that is hard to fully understand until you see it in action.  When you see it, you get it.

The need for Child Life becomes clear, as you consider the weight of what patients and families are going through during a medical crisis. They may be facing a new reality after a tragic accident, a new diagnosis, or being told there is no curative solution. Along with worrying about health outcomes, families are abruptly thrown into a whole new world of the hospital- with its own rhythm, confusing terminology and ever-changing staff/medical plans. Family separation, painful procedures, treatment side effects, and lack of predictable routine leave children and their caretakers feeling helpless and raw with emotion. The what-ifs and lack of control can be paralyzing. Not to mention: life, jobs, and bills continue to go on outside of their hospital room. The world doesn’t stop, despite the feeling that their own world has. Survival mode kicks in. And in the midst of all the uncertainty and chaos, there’s a sick child with a million questions and a daunting journey ahead.

There are so many gaps to fill beyond the immediate medical needs at hand, and healing is never limited to just the physical.  Child Life Specialists work alongside the patient’s interdisciplinary staff to address as many of these gaps as possible- primarily focusing on development and coping, as well as reducing stress and trauma.  We assess and address these objectives in a style that children respond best to: through forms of play. 

Play is a universal language for children– and its familiar, non-threatening nature helps Child Life Specialists build quick rapport, teach new skills, and reveal a patient’s current state of mind.  Our adaptability and assessment skills for what type of play is most needed, is just part of a Child Life Specialist’s toolbox to help a child work through their healthcare journey. We play for empowerment. We play for resiliency and control in an otherwise hard and stressful environment. 

Child Life Specialists not only play to teach and prepare for what’s coming, but we also play during painful or scary procedures to keep children calm and cooperative. This type of play is centered on redirection and relaxation techniques, all while simultaneously creating a less traumatic environment for the procedure to occur. To do this, we advocate for Comfort Positions, where the patient can sit up and be held by their caregiver- rather than laid flat and held down by medical staff. We promote One Voice practices, to reduce overstimulating conversations and scary words said out of haste. We give choices, however few there may be in that moment, to allow the patient to be part of the process. Child Life Specialists can provide therapeutic interventions during all facets of treatment: from pill swallowing, to physical therapy sessions, and everything in between.

When play is not the answer, and the disease gets the final word, Child Life Specialists hold hands and hearts. We help siblings say goodbye, and understand about death. We make hand molds and handprints, and take pictures of a family’s last snuggle. Memories made, because there won’t be more made together. These families allow us into such a raw and vulnerable space, to capture just a fraction of their love together to take home with them.

This role can be heavy. Child Life Specialists have been all too familiar with “Burn Out,” long before it became a COVID-19 buzzword. With all the interventions and ways that Child Life Specialists can help, there is still only so much that can be accomplished in a day with 20+ patients in a caseload. There is so much need, so many gaps to fill, and an unspoken expectation to magically make a child smile when their world is falling apart. And yet, I’m certain if you asked others in the Child Life Community, most would still say it’s the most meaningful work they have ever done. It certainly has been for me. Child Life Specialists help patients and families learn to thrive- not only in the healthcare setting, but beyond.  Not many professions provide this kind of opportunity to change lives every single day. 

So in honor of Child Life Month this month, I want to dedicate this to all of those who are in the trenches with their patients today.  Not everyone will understand what this profession truly encompasses, but from all of us at StudentsCare: we see it, we get it, and we appreciate all you do.