A few weeks ago, my husband's father slipped on some ice and broke his leg. The break was pretty extensive and he ended up requiring surgery. Now, if you know my son, you know that he is a big lover and ridiculously charming. He'll make you feel like you're his favorite person in the whole world! Until Grandpa comes along, that is! My father-in-law is an excellent grandfather to my kids. Shep always has so much fun and is glued to grandpa's side whenever they are together. After the surgery, we knew that Kevin would be off his feet for a few months. He wouldn't be able to run around with Shep. How do you tell a three-year-old toddler about surgery and illness? Would he understand that Grandpa's broken leg was fixed but still healing?
It turns out, toddlers can comprehend way more than we give them credit for! Each time I re-discover this I wonder why I've forgotten in the first place. Yes, kids are sponges! They learn rapidly and their curiosity seems insatiable. Better yet, they are malleable. In so many ways, the toddler years are about pushing boundaries and learning independence. Because my son wants to be "just like Grandpa", he has more internal motivation to learn "big boy" things. That desire to be a big boy has helped us potty train, cultivate positive behaviors, and learn new things about our world.
These are a few tips I picked up from more experienced parents before I approached my son about the injury.
Avoid Graphic Details
Our mantra for the day: toddlers understand more than we give them credit for! Kids hurt themselves playing all the time, even serious injuries can happen. Of course, none of us want our kids to be hurt! The odds aren't in their favor, though. At some point, your kids are probably going to experience the physical pain of a "really big owie". It's important that they know what's going on. Without context, pain might seem even scarier than it already is. Still, you don't need to go into details about blood and gore! Keep it simple: "When we get an owie, our body tells us we need to get help. That's why they hurt. If you get a boo-boo, ask a grown-up for help to fix it."
Compare Surgeons To Auto Mechanics
We used auto mechanics since our son loves trucks. You could use a real-world comparison that appeals to your own toddler's interest. The key is to make a comparison between someone who fixes things when they're broken and surgeons. When we explained to Shep that his grandpa needed someone to fix his leg we didn't want him to be scared. "Grandpa needs a surgeon to help him feel better. Surgeons help people just like mechanics help cars."
Let Them Ask Questions
In the last few weeks, my son has been telling everyone he meets that his grandpa has a really big owie. What makes me really proud is that he then follows up by saying, "And then the doctor fixed his leg and he's all better now!" When he brings up Grandpa's leg, I tell him that he's right. Toddlers are curious about a lot of things, but sometimes they are just as content with superficial explanations. Let their questions guide your answers. For example, I said, "Surgeons help people just like mechanics help cars." When my toddler said, "Do they fix the wheels?" I was able to say, "People don't have wheels, we have feet. But doctors fix feet, too!" Sometimes kids don't want to know the details.
Practice Patience During Recovery
The most difficult part of most surgeries is recovery. Being cut open and sewed back together safely is an amazing feat of human accomplishment! It's also pretty gnarly and can leave some impressive scars. Help your child understand that the part with the boo-boo will be bandaged for a while. Treat this as a chance to focus on gentle touches and being extra nice to the person recovering! Shep knows his best friend - his Grandpa won't be running around after him for a little while. He's sad, but he knows it will be okay.
At the end of the day, toddlers are really resilient. If we help them grasp a feeling of control by explaining what's going on, we can help them stay even-keeled in adversity. Three-year-olds don't need to know all the gritty details. Comparing surgery to something in their own world will help them get the big picture. Most important is helping them process how they feel. Hopefully, these chats will help your child understand surgery if and when they must.