Child Life Services: What Is Child Life?

Reviewed by Robert P. Bogenberger, Ph.D.

What Is Child Life?

Child life is a service that supports children and their families in stressful or potentially traumatic settings. Often, the efforts of a child life specialist reduce or even eliminate the negative psychological effects that were once viewed as unavoidable in distressing situations.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that child life services improve outcomes for children and reduce both medication use and length of hospitalizations.

Child life originated in the healthcare industry. In hospitals, healthcare workers physically prepare patients for medical procedures and support them in recovery to ensure their body heals. They also take care to avoid unnecessary side effects or complications. 

In a similar way, child life specialists prepare children psychologically for medical procedures and help them recover in a way that protects their mental health. The use of child life services can help avoid unnecessary psychological side effects or complications.  Although child life originated in healthcare settings, the interventions can also help children with many of the other stressful disruptions they may face in life. 

What Is a Child Life Specialist?

A child life specialist is a certified professional who provides psychological care and support for children and their families. 

Child life specialists typically have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, child development, or counseling. To become a certified child life specialist (CCLS), a person must complete an internship (many of which require practicum experience), pass an exam, and adhere to requirements for certification renewal.

Although child life specialists are often found in healthcare settings, their training is not the same as training for doctors and nurses. They have a basic understanding of various medical procedures, such as getting an IV, but they do not perform procedures themselves. Instead, child life specialists use their training and knowledge to support children and their families and help them navigate the complexities of hospital life.

Where Can You Find Child Life Services?

Child life programs first started in hospitals and pediatric care units. Now, child life is available in a variety of settings, including:

  • Schools
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Dentists’ offices
  • Clinics
  • Camps
  • Prisons

What Does a Child Life Specialist Do?

1. Normalize the Hospital Experience

One of the primary responsibilities for child life specialists is to normalize the hospital experience for children. Hospitals can be frightening places, even for adults. It is the job of the child life specialist to view the hospital through the eyes of a child and determine ways to help the child feel both physically and psychologically safe.

Not all child life specialists work in hospitals, but most work in settings a child may consider abnormal, concerning, stressful, or even frightening. A child life specialist in a prison, for example, can help normalize the experience for a child visiting a parent. They can develop ways of making the lights, alarms, locks, and guards feel more normal and less frightening.

2. Provide Psychological Preparation for Children

Before surgery, a nurse will come into a patient’s room and prepare them physically for the procedure. Maybe they will start an IV or help them change into a hospital gown. They might take some tests or ensure the patient is avoiding certain foods.

In a similar way, a child life specialist is responsible for preparing a patient psychologically. A child life specialist can explain medical procedures in ways that the patient can understand at their level of development. They may take a toy syringe, for example, and let the child hold it and play with it. This way, the child is less fearful when a real syringe is used later for a medical purpose. 

Psychological preparation is important even when the child is not the patient. For example, it can be very frightening to see a parent in a hospital bed after an accident. A child life specialist can spend time with a child in the waiting room and show them pictures of what machines they can expect to see and what each one does. Even just a few minutes invested in preparation can significantly protect a child’s mental health from what would otherwise have been a traumatic experience.

3. Promote Child Development Through Play

Play is a critical part of child development. For children who are in the hospital for long periods of time, play can be difficult to prioritize. A child life specialist uses play to ensure that children in the hospital get opportunities to be children instead of just patients.

Often, play can be used to help children understand and engage with the world. Child life specialists can also use play as a way to help children understand medical procedures in a way that is accessible for their level of development.

4. Educate and Support Families

Child life specialists support both children and their families. Sometimes this means siblings of child patients. Other times, it can mean families who may be grieving the loss of a child or struggling to prepare a child for the loss of a family member. Regardless of the need, child life specialists can serve as advocates for both children and families in a variety of settings.

Child Life and Children’s Mental Health

A major goal of child life is to prevent unnecessary traumatization of children in stressful settings. However, many children entering the hospital or other settings may already be struggling with a mental illness or other mental health concerns. 

Child life specialists are trained to help children who may already be struggling with their mental health. They also work to prevent the current stressor (e.g., hospitalization) from exacerbating existing conditions.

Types of Childhood Trauma

Psychological trauma is an emotional response to a horrifying, stressful, or dangerous event, relationship, or circumstances that threatens or harms a person’s health and safety. It can occur at all stages of life, including childhood.

Child life specialists are usually employed in settings in which stress or trauma is likely. They can help children dealing with a variety of potentially traumatic situations, including:

  • Coping with a chronic illness or disability
  • Adjusting to new medical realities
  • Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • Recovering from a major procedure
  • Undergoing medical treatment
  • Going to the ER for the first time
  • Returning to school after medical care
  • Being hospitalized for attempting suicide
  • Visiting a loved one in the hospital
  • Witnessing the effects of a loved one’s illness or injury
  • Losing a loved one
  • Watching parents struggle with mental health or grief

Grief in Children

Just like trauma, grief can also be experienced by people of all ages, including children. However, grief in children is often expressed differently than grief in adulthood. 

Children often do not yet have the verbal or cognitive skills to express their feelings or experiences. Even older children who have such skills may find it difficult to access them due to the weight of their grief. 

Child life specialists can help children in the hospital who may be grieving for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Losing a sense of “normal life”
  • Not feeling like a child anymore
  • Receiving a new diagnosis
  • Losing touch with friends
  • Falling behind in school
  • Missing out on extracurricular activities
  • Watching their family members struggle or grieve
  • Relapsing
  • Experiencing the loss of a loved one

Therapies Used in Addition to Child Life Services

Child life specialists are not therapists. However, their psychological training can help children process difficult experiences while still protecting their mental health. Child life services may be available before, during, and after stressful situations in addition to other therapies, such as:

If your child has recently been discharged from the hospital or undergone a similarly stressful experience, they may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, especially if child life services were not available to help them prepare for and process their experience. Browse our directory to find therapists near you.