New book looks at spiritual needs of sick children

For children, a stay in hospital can be a frightening experience, but a new book by Rev Dr Alister Bull, secretary of the Mission and Discipleship Council, aims to help healthcare professionals understand and support children dealing with illness and hospitalisation.

Rev Dr Alister Bull
Rev Dr Alister Bull

Published this week, ‘Assessing and Communicating the Spiritual Needs of Children in Hospital,’ grew out of Dr Bull’s work as lead healthcare chaplain at Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Yorkhill from 2001-2012.

From watching your parents worry about you to being treated by medical staff, staying in hospital is difficult and often traumatic for children, Dr Bull says.

“I was a chaplain in that hospital, but I had also been a patient there and a parent whose child had been in the hospital, so I had a great affinity with the families.

“It made me understand that a stay in hospital can remain with you for a lifetime so I wanted to givechildren a voice in this time of crisis. I knew that only by listening to the children and understanding them could we give them the tools to work through their difficult feelings.

“If an event like a hospitalisation can shape the way a child sees things for the rest of their lives, spirituality is one way of attempting to explain that and trying to make sense of it. Children do that just as we all do.”

Listening to children

Dr Bull listened. He also gave children picture cards and a storyboard so they could create picture stories that showed how they saw the hospital, the doctors and nurses, their treatment, their families, and their illness.

Assessing and communicating the spiritual needs of children

“A child’s voice can easily get drowned out by the adults around them,” he says. “Through play and storytelling you enable children to share their concerns, joys, fears, loves and pains.

“When I first shared this research with my colleagues I was met with stunned silence. They told me it was the first time they had heard childrenspeak at considerable length about their experiences in hospital.”

Ten years in the writing—six years of research and writing for a PhD thesis and four more to polish the text for wider publication—the book equips adults to listen and talk in ways that help children to speak out andhealthcare professionals to share clearly with each other.

Dr Bull hopes that it will be widely used by chaplains, healthcare staff, psychologists, teachers and anyone who needs to understand the spiritual needs of children. And he believes the book will also be useful to churches who want to develop and enhancechildren's place in local congregations.

“I’m excited it’s being published both here and in the United States,” he says. “What’s important to me is giving back the knowledge so people can draw from this research and use it in their work.”

Assessing and Communicating the Spiritual Needs of Children in Hospital is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.