“When you look past the illness or injury, into the child’s eyes … you see who they really are.” And, what they need.
That’s what Diana Sundberg, manager of the UC Davis Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department has discovered during her tenure in the field. Sundberg and her team of child life specialists play a critical role in the lives of hospitalized children.
“Hospitals can’t thrive without these programs,” Sundberg said.
Children’s Miracle Network at UC Davis funds the UC Davis Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department.
Why Child Life?
Children today face a wide variety of stressful and potentially traumatic events that can overwhelm their ability to cope and heal. Difficult or unexpected experiences such as chronic illness or hospitalization are hard for parents to handle, let alone children who are particularly vulnerable. The ability to help children successfully understand and manage these experiences is paramount.
Since children process information differently than adults, managing the effects of stress and trauma requires a unique perspective and approach. Enter child life.
The importance of child life and creative arts therapy services has been well documented. Without it, children of all ages experience emotions they can’t manage on their own: fear, shame, confusion and loneliness, among others, which can impede their development and can have lasting negative effects on their well-being.
“Watching my staff work, I see these children transform before my eyes,” said Sundberg. Kids come to us scared and anxious and I watch as they literally transform into masterful, in-control patients. It is really something.”
UC Davis child life specialists:
- Provide information, support and education to families regarding hospitalization, illness or injury
- Explain medical and surgical procedures to children using play, puppets and medical equipment
- Accompany children to medical procedures and/or surgery to provide explanation, reassurance and emotional support
- Introduce coping strategies to help reduce anxiety and enhance cooperation with the health care team
- Help siblings understand the hospital environment, coping and visitation
- Arrange special events and activities for children and families to help normalize the hospital environment
These trained professionals collaborate with the rest of the patient’s health care team to meet the psychosocial and developmental needs of each child, while also supporting their families. Child life specialists take a different approach to achieve their goals depending on the child and the situation. The kids lead the way.
“Kids don’t always use words so we connect with them using alternative means. It’s amazing when they are able to release emotion and share their thoughts,” Sundberg said. “It gives us the perspective we need to help them.”
As a volunteer at UC Davis Medical Center in the early ’90s, Sundberg first learned about the importance of helping children thrive emotionally as well as physically during their hospital stays. From volunteer to intern to employee and now manager, Sundberg has seen this field expand exponentially … just like her department. Once a group of three, there are now more than 20 child life and creative arts therapists on staff at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. Plus, the department now works in a number of different pediatric areas within the hospital, as well as occasionally with children of adult patients.
While the child life field continues to grow, research is being conducted to collect data supporting the benefits child life has on medical outcomes as well as the emotional well-being of the child. After having provided these services for almost two decades, Sundberg is convinced.
“The resilience these kids show … it’s beyond words,” she said. “I see it every day.”