It occurs to me that thinking of how to communicate with a child can help us communicate as adults. With team members, staff and our peers. It is vital to understand all viewpoints and not just your own. We need to empathise with people. To understand where they are coming from, their version of what’s happening. We don’t always see with clarity, all the elements of the problem. Ask questions, and above all, listen.
My story. The power of listening.
Recently I was in the hospital for a routine check. It involved an overnight stay, and I found myself wondering about a family man in the ward down the corridor for me. I wasn’t talking to the man directly. I don’t know the extent of his illness, but I found myself intrigued by the three young children that came to visit. They laughed with wide eyes, while the adults around them spoke in hushed tones. I got to thinking about how kids deal with trauma, and how parents deal with kids facing trauma for the first time.
Who tells parents how to cope? How do you explain to your child that daddy is ill and who makes you the expert? While you simultaneously struggle to deal with your worry for your partner? It must be stressful, and it must be frightening, to cope with your anxiety and do the right thing for your child.
“listening is perhaps the most critical skill of all.”
It strikes me that honesty is vital, but how much honesty? Perhaps the right place to start is asking your child to explain what they think is happening. Having an idea of what your child knows already, or fears already, is a good starting point and a place from which to build a dialogue. Asking your child what they want to know can help you avoid overwhelming them with too much adult detail.
Children are perhaps unlikely to understand the full complexity of life and death. Questions like ‘why is daddy hurting? Can I touch his hand? What is that machine doing?’ These are all questions that can be answered and can go a long way to a reassuring visit to a hospital. Before going into the ward, it could be useful to give a child some idea of what it might look like; with staff in uniforms, white beds and furniture, curtains and enclosures, machines and wires.
Asking a child to draw a picture of what they think daddy might look like in the hospital, is another way to tap into their level of understanding. You can add to their picture to show a drip or a nurse in uniform that is ‘helping daddy to get well’. If your sketching skills are not up to scratch, a photo of the ward could help a conversation about what they might expect to see, and smell and hear.
Like many situations in life, fear is often reduced by knowledge and communication. Listening is perhaps the most critical skill of all.