Intermountain Healthcare

Making Childhood Trauma a Little Less Traumatic


Salt Lake City, UT -- (ReleaseWire) -- 11/08/2021 --It is said "children are resilient" so often, it is sometimes taken for granted. While it is true children can be incredibly resilient against life's challenges and even trauma, usually they can't do it alone.

"As a general rule, kids with support can cope with difficult things," said Michael Robertson, Child Life Specialist for Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital. "But it requires effort on the part of the grownups to provide that support so they can be resilient."

At Intermountain Healthcare, Child Life Specialists are located in hospitals across the system to help the youngest of patients.

"We provide psychosocial care for pediatric patients in a healthcare environment," Robertson said. "It's a pretty broad term, but in essence we focus on the developmental level of the child and try to make a traumatic situation less traumatic."

Research shows that 80 to 90 percent of children who enter a healthcare situation leave with short or long term trauma, Robertson said. Even babies in NICU situations have after effects, though sometimes it doesn't present itself until young adulthood.

"Our profession is designed to help buffer the negative emotional effects of healthcare or hospitalization," Robertson said.

For some patients, that buffer may be as simple as providing toys and games for the child to play. In other cases, it's explaining a medical procedure in language a child can understand; or removing the uncertainty about a diagnosis by talking the child through what they can expect.

"When we prepare kids for procedures, we let them know what they are going to see, hear, touch, taste and smell, as well as the sequence of events from the moment they come into the hospital to when they wake up from the anesthesia," Robertson said.

The key is to share all that information in a very age appropriate way.

"I speak differently to a 5-year-old than a 13-year-old," Robertson said. "A lot of times, even the best physicians and nurses tend to use the language they're familiar with, but kids don't understand hospital jargon."

For example, Robertson said, when a nurse says they're going to take the patient "to the floor" fellow medical staff know that means the patient is moving to the level in the hospital where the patient will be treated. But a child might be wondering why they will have to sleep on the floor, rather than in a bed.

Another example, Robertson said, is when kids hear the nurses need to get an IV, the child might think they're talking about "ivy" and wonder why they have to have a plant put in their arm.

"We use soft language to help kids understand in their way," Robertson said.

It's not just about language, however. Robertson and his colleagues spend a lot of time helping patients express the fear and anxiety they may be feeling over a difficult diagnosis, or a traumatic accident. One way that Robertson has found to be effective is to have the child draw a picture, or act out their feelings with dolls or toys.

"We use play in therapeutic ways," Robertson said. "The act of drawing or playing is one way for me to assess where they're at, and the act of them drawing the picture is therapeutic itself, so it helps in multiple ways."

"It's very important to give kids a voice," Robertson said.

Access to child life specialists in the hospital setting can be arranged for any parent who requests the service, and is available at no additional charge.

"We do a lot of advocacy and caring for kids, even helping the siblings of the sick child to better understand why their sibling has to stay in the hospital," Robertson said. "We're there to really help kids and their families have a successful time."

If parents are concerned with their children's mental well being and feel the need of immediate support -- or needs help themselves -- they are encouraged to contact the Utah Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, 24/7). Intermountain also provides a free Behavioral Health Navigation Line (833-442-2211) seven days a week, from 7 am to 7 pm, and Connect Care for Behavioral Health also allows virtual visits with providers.

About Intermountain Healthcare
Located in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada, Intermountain Healthcare is a nonprofit system of 25 hospitals, 225 clinics, the Intermountain Medical Group with some 2,700 employed physicians and advanced care practitioners, a health plans division called SelectHealth, Homecare, and other health services. Helping people live the healthiest lives possible, Intermountain is committed to improving community health and is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes at sustainable costs. For updates, see