You may need to consider whether a child should visit their parent or a close relative in an ICU. You should check with staff before bringing children to the unit and talk to the child about it. If the child decides they want to go into the ICU, prepare them for what they might see, including the machines, what they do and how the patient might look. (See What can I do to help? and Other things you can expect.)

What you can tell the child will depend on their age and why their parent or relative was taken into the ICU. You can help a child deal with the situation by:

  • trying to keep to their routine as much as possible (including school trips, seeing friends and going to after-school clubs if the child wants to);
  • making sure the child is looked after by someone they know, so they can feel safe at a difficult time;
  • telling the school, and any other relevant groups, that the child’s parent or relative is in intensive care; and
  • explaining the situation and being honest if you don’t know what is going to happen – if you are not sure, try to say something they can understand that will help the child feel secure and reassured, for example, ‘Daddy is very ill but the doctors are doing everything they can to help him’.

If the patient is a parent, try to make sure their child has special time with other members of the family (for example, reading bedtime stories together), as the child will probably start to depend on them more. The child may like to keep a diary with two pages each day – one for a brief description of each day and what they did and one for any souvenirs of the day (pictures and so on). This helps the child understand what is happening and makes it easier for them to talk to the parent about what happened in their life while the parent was in hospital.

Some children may begin to act younger than they are. For example, they may start to suck their thumb or carry a favourite toy with them. This shouldn’t be discouraged because the child is trying to find comfort at a worrying time. If you are concerned about them or their behaviour changes significantly, ask your GP whether the child could receive counselling or support.

Once the patient is out of the ICU, the child may need help dealing with what happened. This can be a gradual process and can take several months. At times, it may be helpful to mention the patient’s stay in hospital so the child knows they can talk about it. Let them ask questions, and ask them how they felt at that time. If the child is very young, they may find it easier to show their feelings by drawing pictures or acting out what happened.

Remember that children can ask very blunt questions, so if the patient doesn’t feel strong enough to cope with this, ask another family member or friend to talk to the child about their experiences and feelings.

If the patient dies, the child will need special attention. Bereavement counselling services can provide special help for a young person whose relative has died. (See the Useful contacts section for details of organisations that provide bereavement counselling.)