Scanxiety in children
Scanxiety (scan anxiety) is a fear or anxiety about MRI or CT scans and their results
What is scanxiety?
Your child is likely to need scans if doctors think they may have a brain tumour. If your child is diagnosed with a brain tumour, they’ll usually have many scans throughout their treatment and care. This can make them anxious and fearful, either about:
- being in the scanner (claustrophobia, fear of the unknown)
- waiting for the results - particularly for older children and parents. (has the tumour have grown or returned?)
These feelings are often called scanxiety (scan anxiety).
Myself as Mum, I vary with my anxiety levels for fear of my daughter facing more medical trauma disrupting her life
We understand that it is not just the person having the scan that experiences scanxiety, but also those that support them.
Find extensive tips and techniques to help you as a parent, to cope with the worry surrounding scans
What can I do when my child is worried about their brain scan?
Scanxiety will look and feel different in every child, so ways of supporting them will vary. You know your child better than anyone and will know which of the following tips may or may not work for them, according to their age and cognitive (mental) ability.
Before scan day
There are various resources that can help your child understand what to expect from a scan. This can help make it less scary.
Ask Jake about …. Scans (The Brain Tumour Charity)
Meet Jake, an 8 year-old boy, who helps children understand scans and answers questions they may have. Originally designed for children, we’ve found that people of all ages find it helpful to understand what happens.
Videos might be helpful as you can show your child actual scanning machines. The charity ‘What? Why? Children in Hospital’ has two videos of a child being shown the scanning equipment and the procedure being explained:
- What happens when my child has a CT scan?
- What happens when my child has an MRI?
(This also lets you hear the sounds of an MRI scanner)
Do remember that the scanner at your child’s hospital may look different.
You could ask your child’s healthcare team if their hospital has similar videos about their scanner.
The Lego brick building company Bright Bricks® have Lego models of MRI and CT scanners available for children to understand how these machines look. They can also be used to act out the process with figures. Although these can be expensive, some hospitals will be able to provide them.
Some centres have mock scanners available for children to see and use, so that they understand what to expect before their scan. Although there are only a few around the country, it’s worth asking your medical team if they’re available in your area. If these aren’t available it can be helpful for your child to see the scanner before their scan. Again you’ll need to ask your medical team if this is something they’re happy with, but many medical teams will be open to this.
Ask your child’s healthcare team, if you can bring videos, music etc for your child to watch/listen to, and whether your child will be able to see you, during their scan.
Depending on your child’s age and cognitive (mental) ability, they may wish to be as informed as possible. Together, you and your child may wish to list and discuss their main worries and fears. This can help you to agree a plan of action. This plan can include how to cope on the day in the waiting room and in the scanner, as well as discussing potential outcomes of the scan.
Having this conversation with your child may be difficult and there’s no wrong or right answer to how much you should discuss with them. Every family is different and you should trust your judgement on what’s best.
For more help and advice, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Dr Roberta Bowie, offers some tips on talking to children about their feelings
If your child is scared, has extreme scanxiety or is claustrophobic, it’s important to talk to your medical team in advance of their scan. They may suggest the use of a health play specialist before their scan. The specialist can use ‘play’, appropriate to the age of your child, to explain the scanning process and help relieve any fears.
Your medical team may also suggest a sedative or general anaesthetic.
Your child may have a ‘cannula’ (tube) inserted into their hand to give a contrast medium, or it may be given in the arm. It may be a little sore when the cannula is inserted, and this can be a scary process. If you speak to your medical team about your child’s fears, a cream can be placed onto your child’s skin 30 - 60 minutes beforehand to numb the area to help with this.
Sedatives and general anaesthetic
In some cases, your child may be given a sedative or a general anaesthetic to keep them asleep for the whole scan. If your child was sedated, or given a general anaesthetic, the hospital staff will first check that they’ve recovered and it’s safe for them to go home. This could take up to a couple of hours after they’ve had their scan.
To me, scanxiety is the fear and worry about the results. To my daughter, now 11, it is the fear of the actual scan…mainly the fear of the cannula. To help my daughter, we have midnight feasts where she chooses her food if a general anaesthetic is needed the next morning... This helps the hunger and gives her something to be excited about. Now a general anaesthetic is not needed, we focus on the excitement of a 'no school day!
On scan day
Although these tips and techniques are specific to scan day, they could also be useful any time your child is experiencing anxieties or worries.
This simple technique will largely depend on your child’s age, but encouraging imaginary play may help to distract them from their fears during their scan. Encourage your child to imagine that the scanner is an exciting experience. It could be a transportation device taking them to another time period, their favourite holiday destination, or outer space.
Help your child to practice mindful awareness by guiding them to focus their attention on their breathing. Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths while closing their eyes, relaxing their muscles, and focusing on how inhaling and exhaling feels. If they find this difficult, it can be helpful for them to place a hand on their stomach or chest to feel the physical rise and fall. This can help shift your child’s focus away from scan worries and onto the physical act of breathing.
What can I do when my child is worried about their results?
Although these tips and techniques are specific to worries about scan results, they could also be useful any time your child is experiencing anxieties or worries.
Distraction can be a great tool. Keeping busy and having fun can help divert your child from thinking about their upcoming scan results.
- plan a short getaway
- take a day trip
- visit your child’s favourite restaurant
- watch a film
- go to a soft play or park
- do some arts and crafts.
It may help to distract your child from their worries about their results by encouraging them to practice mindfulness. There are many resources that you can get for your child to help them be more mindful, including mindful colouring books, dot to dots and apps.
It’s important to remember that the are tools to practice mindfulness, and are not a replacement for treatment for anxiety.
It’s important to remember that mindfulness will naturally be difficult to begin with, but it does get easier with practice. The key is to stick at it and keep trying – there’s no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness.
Afterwards we go shopping for a special treat and do something without her siblings. Prior to the scan, we pick a film to buy on DVD for her to watch during the scan.