What Is a Child Life Specialist?

girl holding teddy bear in hospital
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Undoubtedly when your child was born you vowed to do everything in your power to keep them safe, healthy, and happy. So when your child is injured, sick, or diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it is your worst nightmare. A trained child life specialist can help you navigate the healthcare system and give your child much needed support during this challenging time.

What Is a Child Life Specialist?

So you might ask, what is a child life specialist and why do we need them involved in my child’s treatment? Child life specialists are highly trained healthcare workers who are usually employed by hospitals. They work with children and their families to ease discomfort during hospital visits.

How Do Child Life Specialists Help Young Patients? 

Child life specialists help improve patient and family care as children confront a wide variety of stressful and potentially traumatic events that can impact their development and ability to cope. Experiences in healthcare can negatively impact developmental milestones and lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, and confusion. A committed child life specialist can help your child cope with the stress of injury, chronic illness, trauma, and disability.

Child life specialists provide developmentally appropriate interventions that include therapeutic play, preparation for procedures and treatments, as well as education geared to your child’s developmental needs to lessen fear and anxiety. They will help your child process and express their feelings about their specific experience.

Child life specialists are trained to make doctors, hospitals, needles, and tests less scary and to collaborate with your child’s medical team to ensure each child’s needs are addressed in the most nurturing atmosphere possible. These healthcare providers are integral to the healthcare team and will advocate for your child and your family. They provide support and resources to illicit a positive outcome for the entire family and the patient regardless of illness or injury. Child life specialists are different from other healthcare providers as they focus on the psychological needs of the patient, including emotional and social needs. 

What are the Credentials of a Child Life Specialist? 

Child life specialists are trained professionals hired by hospitals to make the healthcare experience less traumatic. Their credentials include at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to child life, but often a master’s degree, as well as a clinical internship. Child life specialists take an exam to get certified. Like most licensed professionals, child life specialists are required to maintain certification by participating in professional development and continuing education. 

According to the Child Life Council, child life specialists are experts in child development who promote effective coping through play, preparation , education, and self expression. In fact, they use this expertise to explain procedures and thereby prepare your child in developmentally appropriate ways. Their job is to breakdown the medical jargon through pretend play with medical equipment and dolls, so that the child understands what will happen step-by-step, to minimize stress and trauma.

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The Roles & Responsibilities of Child Life Specialists

  • Support the child and family by using a variety of therapeutic milieu to help them better understand process, procedure, or medical experience.
  • Use developmentally appropriate strategies to minimize trauma and increase understanding of medical diagnoses through treatment plans using therapeutic play, activities that promote growth and development and preparation.
  • Advocate for the special needs of the child and their family.
  • Provide information, support, and guidance to parents.
  • Collaborate with the healthcare team to coordinate and manage care.

Family involvement is critical to the delivery of first-rate care and often impacts medical decision-making. Child life specialists can help involve children and parents in that decision-making in such a way that everyone is heard and doctors respect and have empathy for the child behind the diagnoses. Clearly child life specialists are worth consulting with during this stressful time and will help your child feel better about their healthcare experience.

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Dawn Marie Barhyte is a widely published author with over a hundred articles to her credit. A former early childhood educator and co-director, Dawn continues to touch the lives of families through her writing. She lives and works in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY with her beloved husband and rescue chihuahua dachshund.

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