It’s just another day as a child life specialist. A child, trached and vented lies on his couch exclaiming over a book showing how blood flows through his body with the excitement of, well, a child. “I didn’t know that!” is the exclamation that begins his telling his own story of painful blood draws and ways he tries to pretend they don’t happen. From there he begins a fantasy of becoming a rocket ship captain fighting aliens and dealing with breakdowns, until the rocket transforms to a ship he has to defend against pirates. He becomes Spiderman fighting the Green Goblin, and Peter Pan burying Tinkerbell. All the while, I work to fill the details of what he is experiencing, and interpreting the symbolic language of play.
This month we celebrate social workers and child life specialists. With children and in palliative care, there is some overlap in the goal to provide psychosocial support. Our goals are similar, but our methods are different. Children communicate through play, they show their understanding of ideas, fears, joys, and so much more in how they play. As a child life specialist, my hope is to meet them in their space, join them in their internal adventures, be the playmate, the interpreter, and the guide that they often need. This child can’t move, so he creates a fantasy around him in which he has power, can defeat the pirates, be friends with dragons, fly like a superhero, explore death through burying other characters, and act in roles any ten year old would love. With our children, I can be silly, serious, crazy, firm, and fun. I listen to their fears, teach them about their bodies, create play when they physically can’t themselves, and most importantly, empower them to be like Katie Perry’s Champion. I encourage them to Roar, sometimes literally.
A child life specialist is not a social worker. We don’t provide counseling to parents, or coordinate with government agencies. We use our education in child development, communication and play to provide support to children in their own language, gauging what needs may be, from information, to companionship, play, sibling support. We advocate, we communicate, we interpret.
To quote a poem:
“I am deliberate in all my actions and words, because I use the language of children, and it has power. I’m a Child Life Specialist. When kids say the can’t, I tell them they can. I am a teacher, a helping hand, a support, an advocate, an active listener, a therapeutic touch, and a child development specialist. A guide and voice for siblings…All in the same day.”
Our rocket ship driving, pirate defeating captain turns and says ‘I need suctioning.’ Nursing steps in, clears the blockage, and two of us return to beating the imaginary, and symbolic demons of his world.
Families often question what their children know, what should they tell their children. They wish for as many positive memories to create, and hope their child can be happy and fulfilled even at their worst. A child life specialist helps families create those memories through songs, visits, making keepsakes, opening courageous conversations, reframing appropriate information into understandable bites, and helping parents see how strong their kids are. We model play styles, provide special time with siblings, and show parents their own strengths as well.