You set the tone (for your young kid’s sense of fear/tension)

When I first heard that my husband scheduled a work trip the week our youngest was getting minor surgery   (ear tubes), this was me:

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Grrrrr! @#$% WTF! $#%#

But then, I remembered one of my favorite Dr. Psych Mom articles, and had an epiphany that made me feel like this:

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I run this mother —.

With husband gone, I RUN THE WORLD. And by “run the world,” I mean manage the tone of the house and my kid’s anxiety about his procedure.

Now I am not outright saying that my sweet and laid-back husband would have derailed my efforts to maintain calm and filter messages of fear, BUT. My oldest DID tell me that “someone” told him that “anesthesia is really bad for you,” and I for damn sure wouldn’t reveal such an unnecessary tidbit to a kid who may need his tonsils out someday. (Insert another devil picture.) And then there’s the fact that the boys and I roll around in piles of toys and books and unfolded clothes and eat cereal and pizza every evening when husband is gone, and only such a delightful environment truly keeps this mama smiling, intentional, and calm. Anyway.

When my nephew was very young (and I was in high school), I used to play “dentist” with him. I worked at a dentist office at the time, so I’d wear a mask and gloves and go through every step of the dentist experience with him, practically verbatim, with loud suction noises, flouride trays, x-ray tabs, fork-probe, spoon-mirror, and all. He loved this silly game with his weirdo aunt. Looking back, I think his dentist benefited from this game as well, since my nephew was the rare three year old  who looked forward to getting his teeth cleaned and thought nothing of the noises, latex and metal tastes, masks, and vulnerability of having his mouth exposed without control. The point is, if we introduce so-called “scary” stuff to our kids HONESTLY with a neutral tone, the scenario loses its mystery and its power to envoke fear.

The article mentioned above does a good job describing how there is no evolutionary reason that young kids would automatically be freaked-out by a hospital or the word “surgery,” but they can easily get anxious by how the adults around them address/react to such things. (The suggestion is to not even tell teachers and other adults about the surgery, so the child doesn’t hear anything considered upsetting from well-meaning, but more-concerned-than-calm, individuals.)  I will add that managing older siblings’ statements/reactions is also important.

The day before the surgery (any earlier would not have been necessary), I explained matter-of-factly, in age-appropriate-yet-honest detail, the nature of the upcoming surgery to each child individually. Each boy was told separately,  about everything- from the waiting room, to the doctor’s  masks and hair covers, to the nurse weighing him and taking his blood pressure, to the minimal pain expected, to the “air medicine that makes you sleep for a couple minutes.” Then each of the boys was able to have his questions answered one-on-one so as not to trigger fear in the others. Knowing exactly what to expect, and that these details are normal and not feared by a trusted adult, does a lot for an impressionable and intuitive young child.

One time my 5 year old saw a YouTube video (accidentally) on a grossly bloody abdominal surgery, so of course when he heard the word “surgery,” he reacted with alarm. My oldest had concerns about the dangers of anesthesia and wanted to know where and how would he be able to eat breakfast given that his brother wasn’t allowed to eat or drink all morning (The answer to the later was: Go hide in the closet and shove your face out of sight because empathy, duh.)  I was able to assuage all of that without my youngest even getting the idea planted in his head that anything would be dangerous. And equally-as-importantly, my older kids went off the school the morning of the surgery without any lingering worries for their younger brother.

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A snapshot of my son, not even having fear occur to him, moments after I matter-of-factly told him about his “ear surgery appointment” the next day. His two questions were, “Will the air medicine* taste like ice cream?”and “Can I have ice cream after?”

*I chose the phrase “air medicine,” since that’s what we call his nebulizer treatments (something he is really familiar with and not afraid of, and incidentally looks exactly like the anesthesia mask.)

All in all, not only was the surgery a success, but my kid was not freaked out. In fact, during the weirdest and most jarring part- the anesthesia room and table and face mask and strange masked adults- the anesthesiologist commented on how calm and relaxed my son was (the nurse told me that he would be scared and try to wrestle the mask off, but he never did).

So, according to this mom who measures surgical success not only in correctly administered medical procedures but also in psychological wellness, the surgery went extremely well.

And if your young child ever has to go through a surgery or anxiety-provoking experience, your child can do it with minimal distress too. Why? Because you run this mother —.”

Just something to think about as usual, says the the therapist who is not actually such a power-hungry control freak, but was simply trying to find a silver lining to her husband being away when it was her, not her son at all, who honestly benefited from her husband’s comfort.

PS The fact that the doctor’s surgical hat kinda looked like the hat worn by Toad from Mario Brothers did not hurt at all.

*****

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