Child Life specialists empower kids in hospitals, disasters and now the pandemic

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Betsy Andersen

“I could see him trailing off and then he started crying,” says Andersen, who lives in Mundelein, Illinois. But before she swooped in, she heard Miss Eileen talking to him: “She was saying ‘Hey, I see you’re having some big emotions.” Speaking through the puppet, Miss Eileen then led Ezra through some breathing exercises that helped him calm down and focus.

Andersen, like parents all over the country during the pandemic, has been looking for ways to fill the void left for her son and his sister while they’re shuttered inside, isolated and dealing with all kinds of feelings they don’t understand.

“I’m not taking my kids to the store or anywhere. They’re really lonely,” says Andersen, who is trying to keep them active and engaged while doing contract work as a graphic designer. The lack of a fixed schedule is also tough for her son, who gets additional help online for various emotional and developmental issues, though not as much as he received in person at school.

In fact, the facilitators on the Zoom call are particularly adept at working with children and families around times of profound traumatic stress. They’re trained in a specialty known as Child Life, which works with families on the grief, fear, and anxiety that children often experience while receiving medical care for serious illnesses or injuries. While Child Life specialists typically work in hospitals, some are pivoting into other areas and are now applying their skills to the fallout from the pandemic. Some have also been coming up with suggestions for ways to help children process feelings about frightful events captured in the news, such as the killing of George Floyd.

Among those who have branched out is Miss Eileen, aka Eileen Esposito, a Child Life specialist in Tampa, Florida, who helped develop the group sessions that Andersen’s children attended, called Coping through Connection. Esposito and her colleagues are part of an organization that had already stepped outside traditional medical settings, the Child Life Disaster Relieforganization (CLDR), which operates virtually and includes 18 contract Child life specialists around the country.

The group was formed in 2016 to help mitigate trauma in children who have experienced disasters and crises. It also partners with organizations who are deployed to disasters, such as Children’s Disaster Services. It worked with children who lived through the devastating massacre at a country-and-western concert in Las Vegas in 2017, and with children and families who survived Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2019 and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.

Much of their work involves child-led play, says Katie Nees, one of CLDR’s founders who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She recalls an experience working with children in a homeless shelter in Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013, which predates CLDR, but is instructive. Using cardboard boxes, magic markers, crayons and tape, the kids in Oklahoma built their own houses and networked with each other.

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Katie Nees

“They’d say things like, ‘You’re my neighbor, you’re my neighbor, if anything happens, we’ll stick together,’” says Nees. “After a couple days, they had a moment of high energy and ran around making lots of noise. They ended up ripping the houses to shreds,” she says, adding that the scene mirrored the reality of what was visible just outside.

After the demolition, the kids asked for time to sit and be calm, and Nees brought them snacks and drinks.

“We all sat together and [absorbed this feeling] of safety of the moment,” she recalls. “Watching them play out that entire situation the way they did it as a collaborative effort and then at the end just making time for safety and calm, was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.” (Here are some resources from CLDR.)

A turning point for Nees, who has worked in hospitals as a Child Life specialist since 2010, was when she came to understand how clearly the work of Child Life specialists was grounded in ACEs science.

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