Hospitalization can be a stressful experience for a preschooler. However, the preschooler has acquired some good verbal skills and, therefore, may be able to ask many questions regarding the hospital experience. Many of the questions may involve the same fears that a toddler has (i.e., separation, pain) Therefore, it is very important to be honest with your preschooler.
Three of four days before admission is a good time to speak with your preschooler about his hospitalization. Children in this age group can understand simple explanations such as "the doctor is going to fix your heart", or "the doctor needs to do a test to see why your head hurts." Books are also a good source of preparation for your preschooler. Allow questions and comments from the child while reading and looking at pictures together.
It is very common for your preschooler to have misconceptions regarding hospitalization. He may think he is being sent away because he has done something wrong. The guilt many preschoolers experience is usually reduced if explanations are provided. Parents can reassure their preschoolers even before the hospitalization that he has done nothing wrong and has not caused the illness in any way.
It is important for the preschooler to help pack his suitcase and also bring any kind of security item such as a blanket or special toy to the hospital. If your preschooler has brothers and sisters, he may miss them while in the hospital. Pictures of family or pets, etc. may be packed in the suitcase, too!
Dramatic play is a very big part of most preschoolers' lives. Many children like to pretend to be mommy, daddy, the teacher or an adult. Your child may want to play 'doctors' and 'hospital' before he is admitted. This can be done with the child's own dolls or stuffed animals, band-aids, and any play 'doctor' toys. Allow your child to express any feelings he may have. This is a good opportunity to observe any misconceptions, fears, or frustrations shown by your child.
No matter how much preparation occurs, hospitalization can still be stressful for your preschooler. Your child may have some definite behavioral responses to the stress. He may not know how to say, "I am angry," or "I am frustrated and sad," so he lets us know through his behavior. These behaviors may be temper tantrums, refusing to do needed things, excessive whining and crying, or sometimes, very demanding behavior. Parents can help their preschooler by acknowledging what they might be feeling. For example, "I know you are angry, but I cannot let your throw that." Not all preschoolers experience these behavioral responses during hospitalization. However, if they do, they are very typical responses for this age group and should not last long after the child is home and secure in an familiar routine.
Your preschooler may become angry at you. This is usually confusing to parents, because they are not the ones causing the stress of hospitalization. However, the preschooler knows that you are the most trustworthy person and knows that you will still love him. He feels comfortable enough with you to express himself.