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Child Life Specialist Erin Behen

Child Life Specialist Erin Behen

Challenging life events, such as cancer, are difficult for anyone, but imagine being a child facing the uncertainty, pain, uncomfortable procedures and scary prognoses that can be part of a cancer diagnosis. That’s where Erin Behen, MS, CLSS comes in, SCCA Proton Therapy Center’s Child Life Specialist. 

A Child Life Specialist is the person who works with children to develop coping mechanisms, discuss treatments, and help parents figure out the best ways to support their children during treatment. The goal of a Child Life Specialist is to help a child develop as normally as possible, and recover from trauma as quickly as possible.

Erin spends two days a week at the Center. A typical day includes helping caregivers decide whether a child requires sedation, and if so, preparing the child for it; playing with kids to open up communication and answer questions; giving children choices and a voice in their treatment; and helping them get accustomed to the equipment, processes and side effects. 

For example, if a child requires sedation through a port, Erin will give them a stuffed animal with a port and they can take it home and practice on the toy. They will talk about whether it will hurt, and if it will, what they can do about it. And they’ll devise strategies for getting “back to baseline,” that is, returning as soon as possible to being a normal kid. 

“Play is the language of children,” says Erin. “We play with them to get them to open up and talk to us.  We answer all their questions, truthfully, in an age-appropriate way.  And we give them options so they feel in control.  When they trust you and have some control, they can handle a lot.”

Erin knew she wanted to be a Child Life Specialist since she first heard about the role when she was 17.  “I called up UW and said, ‘What do I need to do to become this?’ That’s how I picked my major (psychology) and then I went on to receive two Masters, one in child development, and one in Child Life.”

Erin helps the parents just as much as the kids. “One mother came to me all freaked out and said, ‘My five-year-old asked me if the tumor will kill her. Did I say the right thing?’ I took the child to a play room, and we played together and I asked her about what she had asked her mother, and how her mother had answered, which was that her tumor is treatable. That was a great answer, and I was able to reassure the mother that the communication had gone well.” 

Erin loves her job because she is always doing something different, and gets great joy from working with both the children and their parents. She can spend real time with each family, so they know she is there for them. “I learn so much from the children, and they can bounce back from procedures faster than adults can. It’s a privilege to work with them.”