One Year Into The COVID-19 Pandemic, How Have Child Life Specialists Helped Families Cope?

March 24, 2021

Throughout the past year, the loss of community, absence of routines and the overall trauma that is shared by all due to COVID-19 has deeply affected families. During this isolated period, children have required additional support in developing positive coping strategies within stressful experiences and processing the different types of losses they have experienced. 

At Lurie Children’s, child life specialists have been called on to use their skills of teaching emotional regulation and helping children work through grief and loss reactions with an even higher frequency throughout the pandemic. The Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP) recently released a statement about Emotional Safety in Pediatrics, outlining the important contribution that child life specialists continue to play in supporting children in healthcare environments.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our Child Life team has developed new tactics and expanded existing measures to provide support to families. As we observe Child Life Week (March 22-28) and the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, our Child Life Specialists share the lessons they have learned in helping families adapt to change over the course of the past year. 

Partnering With Families To Provide Virtual Support

When hospital visitor restrictions were put in place in response to the pandemic, Katelyn Zilles, CCLS, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), adapted the way she provides therapeutic interventions to siblings of NICU patients through the use of telemedicine.  “As a Child Life Specialist, my focus on caregiver comfort, bond and adjustment within the NICU is always a priority,” she said. “This last year has made a NICU admission all the more complex and challenging for our families. Creatively utilizing our expanded telemedicine program to connect new parents with their babies, to encourage sibling involvement or to help teach a new skill such as infant massage has been invaluable. It has pushed me to grow and to better support our patients and their loves ones during the pandemic.

Supporting Children’s Understanding

As a Child Life Specialist on the hospital’s 21st floor, Leah Hoelscher has spent much of the past year working closely with children with COVID-19 or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). She learned that patients of all ages struggled to separate media narratives about the pandemic from their own experiences with the virus. “One patient was eight years old and had a mild case of COVID-19, but his biggest fear was that he would need to be intubated, like people he saw on TV,” Leah said. “It has been increasingly important to ensure children and teenagers have support as they process major news stories. It is crucial to acknowledge that this is happening and reinforce the pieces of information that apply to their reality: How does it affect your life, your people, your routine, your schedule? What’s helpful for you?”

Addressing Sensory Needs

Child Life Specialists know that in moments of distress, it is especially helpful to consider the sensory profile of children and ensure that they have what they need to be calm and regulated. The Emergency Department team has rolled out therapeutic sensory carts in the last year to support kids with various sensory needs. “It’s a five-drawer cart with easily accessible tools for kids who need help adjusting to or controlling more of their environment, like noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, things that make noise and/or vibrate and weighted blankets,” said Anna Hoeppner. “We also have a Vecta cart in the ED that is essentially a mobile machine with fiber-optic lights, bubbles, and music.” In moments of distress or anxiety before, during or after a procedure, the carts offer changes to the environment of a room to provide a curated sensory experience.

Eliminating As Many Unknowns As Possible

At Lurie Children’s outpatient clinic in Lincoln Park, Jenny Puntillo says she has noticed heightened anxiety in parents and patients before procedures due to the pandemic. In a trial program, Jenny helps families cope with potentially anxiety-producing experiences, through pre-visit phone calls with parents, preparation prior to procedures with explanation of events, in-person support throughout procedure, and a post-visit phone call with parents. This has supported almost all of these patients to complete their procedure without additional medications typically used to reduce anxiety. “The opportunity to talk through what to expect, how things will feel for their child and the coping plans put in place for the day-of procedure has been met with great relief,” Jenny said. “We hear from parents that these measures have had a positive effect and helped to relieve stress.”

Valuing Individualized Care

Each child has a unique set of circumstances and needs within their own medical experience. Child life specialists aim to honor this through listening, collaborating, validating and ultimately individualizing care. “What helps a lot of kids is to have somebody who understands their fears,” Anna said. “It’s normal for adults to form our own perception of what kids are scared of, but if we can understand the child’s fear and discuss ways to work through it, that can be really helpful.”

About Lurie Children’s Child Life Specialists

Lurie Children’s works to create a positive environment for our patients and families. We have child life specialists located at our main hospital and at our outpatient satellite locations who are there to support your child through their medical experience in a developmentally appropriate and supportive manner.