Every day is a new day for child life specialists. When we go into work, we have an idea of what our day will be like—meeting patients, encouraging kids to play and socialize, teaching patients about diagnosis. But there are always new patients, new challenges, and new surprises.
With many different responsibilities, and a constantly changing environment, it takes a certain kind of person to become a child life specialist.
Here are five things it takes to be a child life specialist:
As a child life specialist, you sometimes see families on their worst days. You may be talking to a parent who is devastated to find out about her child’s diagnosis, or you could be spending time teaching and supporting a patient who is going to experience something new today.
These moments can be challenging. But if you have emotional and mental strength, you can absolutely get through it.
It’s also important to stay strong and resilient for your own health and well-being. Child life specialists have many different jobs, so there are always moving parts. Without that mental strength to focus, it can become difficult to balance everything.
That can cause a lot of stress, which can lead to health problems like high blood pressure, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
One rewarding part of my job is to watch a child become more comfortable, trusting, and at ease—and knowing that I had a hand in that. It’s an amazing reward, but it doesn’t always come with a snap of the fingers. It takes creativity and time building rapport and trust.
Every patient is unique. So when you’re trying to find a way to help a child feel at ease, or distract him, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Some kids like bubbles, musical toys, or games on an iPad, but others aren’t so easy to please right away.
Finding that one thing that helps them feel at ease can take some time, but it’s worth the work. It establishes a rapport, and can make a medical experience less scary.
In fact, it can even make the hospital kind of fun. Kids come in and immediately ask, “Do you have this toy or that game for me?” It’s part of their routine, and it helps them cope.
This goes hand-in-hand with creativity. You can come in completely prepared, just to discover that what you had planned isn’t going to work. You have to be able to work with what you have in the moment, and think off the top of your head.
I had a two-year-old patient, and I came in with some toys that girls her age usually like. But she and mom were already in a comfortable position for her port access, and I realized that toys weren’t needed to support her.
So, I began singing songs, like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Her mom joined in, and we sang softly and calmly. That was a big comfort to the girl. It’s about knowing how to meet children where they are at and take cues from them.
4. The Right Education
The Child Life Council is the only organization that can officially certify professionals as Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS). The Council takes this very seriously—getting the Certified Child Life Specialist credential is no walk in the park.
Being a child life specialist is more than just playing with patients. It’s about helping patients and families handle the emotions and stress that come with a pediatric cancer diagnosis. It’s educating them about cancer, providing them with resources, and making their experience as comfortable as possible.
You have to have an interest in being in a helping profession, and working with families to navigate their medical journey. But interest isn’t enough—you also need to have passion. This can be a demanding job, but if helping people is your passion, the rewards outweigh the stress.
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