What It Means to Be a Child Life Specialist

No parent wants to imagine their child being diagnosed with a life-threatening or chronic illness. Unfortunately, these things do happen and, each year, countless children end up spending extended periods of time in hospitals. Being stuck in a hospital is far from an ideal situation for any child, and having a child who requires extensive hospitalization takes a major toll on parents. That’s where child life specialists come in.

Child life specialists work directly with sick kids and their families to make the experience of being in the hospital as positive as possible. While they can’t eliminate the stress of the situation, they can make it a bit easier for everyone in the family to cope with and manage. Keep reading to learn a bit more about what it means to be a child life specialist.

Who Are Child Life Specialists and What Do They Do?

Child life specialists have backgrounds in child counseling, psychology, and development and work closely with kids and their families in medical settings. They commonly work in children’s hospitals and other facilities with large pediatric departments. The primary role of a child life specialist is helping kids and their families understand how to cope with hospital stays and experiences. Being in a hospital can be an overwhelming and frightening experience for a child. Having a child in the hospital is tough on parents, too. Children and parents alike often do not fully understand what is going on or what to expect. A child life specialist largely acts as an advocate who explains medical jargon and helps kids and parents better understand their current circumstances.

Child life specialists strive to reduce fear and anxiety and make the hospital stay as positive as possible for everyone involved. They also provide emotional support to kids during procedures. They prepare kids in an age-appropriate manner and work closely with them to help them get through potentially upsetting procedures with as little emotional trauma as possible. While this type of work can be emotionally draining, child life specialists offer positivity and an upbeat attitude. They put their own concerns and struggles aside in order to bring a bit of positivity into the lives of kids and parents who need it most.

Requirements for Being a Child Life Specialist

In order to become a child life specialist, one has to undergo significant training and obtain certain certifications. The Association of Child Life Professionals requires certified child life specialists to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field of study, such as human growth and development, psychology, counseling, or education. They are also required to complete at least 480 hours in an internship under a certified child life specialist. Most internships require more than the minimum number of hours. Practicum experience is generally required prior to the internship, too.

Once you have completed your internship, you will need to pass a national examination. Once you pass the exam, you will become certified for a five-year period. After five years have elapsed, you will need to recertify. This recertification process ensures that all child life specialists possess up-to-date knowledge and are familiar with current protocols. You do not need to be a medical expert in order to become a child life specialist. In fact, most do not have medical backgrounds. You need to have a basic understanding of medical terminology and anatomy. Most everything else you will learn as you go.

What It Really Means to Be a Child Life Specialist: Required Traits

Educational requirements are one thing, but when it comes down to what it really means to be a child life specialist, there are certain traits that you need to possess. Anyone can obtain the right education and training, but not everyone is cut out to handle the more emotionally draining parts of the job. If you are considering this career, you need to be a compassionate person. You will be dealing with the most vulnerable patients imaginable, and you’ll be working with parents who are going through the worst times of their lives. You need to be compassionate and have an excellent bedside manner. You also need to be empathetic.

Sometimes, you’ll need to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions. Explaining complex procedures to young children isn’t easy, but it is something that you will need to do in a manner that isn’t scary and is easy to understand. Sometimes, you’ll have to get creative and use toys or play to explain complicated concepts.

You will need to figure out how to relate to each individual child. For some, that may mean wearing colorful scrubs emblazoned with their favorite cartoon characters. For others, it may mean determining which means of communication they are most comfortable with. Some kids may only express their own feelings through games where they pretend to be someone else. It’s up to you to figure these things out and come up with creative solutions so that you can connect with your patients. When you work in child life services, you also need to have exceptional organization skills, and you need to be a team player. If you don’t work well with other people and you are disorganized, you may want to consider a different career.


Working as a child life specialist is a difficult job, but it is very rewarding. You have the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of kids and their parents. You get to work hand-in-hand with medical professionals and learn about all sorts of diagnoses and procedures, and you often get to experience the joy of watching a child recover and get better. If you are looking for one of the most rewarding jobs that you can do while wearing scrubs, consider becoming a child life specialist.