When kids know they’re going to the doctor, anxiety about the visit can start to set in. Many kids worry about separation from their parents, pain from a hefty immunization schedule or even the doctor himself.
“Toddlers are often the age we see the most fear,” said Dr. Jennifer Burkam, of Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics Green. “Fortunately, toddlers have great imaginations and love pretending. It can help to have a pretend doctor kit at home to practice giving checkups. Families also can bring comfort items like a stuffed animal, and we can give the toy a checkup first so the child can see it isn’t scary.”
To help your child overcome his fears, encourage him to express his fears and then address them in words he understands. Here are some practical ways to help your child overcome her fears.
Explain the purpose of the visit
Giving your child advance notice of a visit so it’s not a surprise. When explaining the purpose of the visit, talk about the doctor in a positive way to help promote the relationship between your child and the doctor.
If the upcoming appointment is for a regular health checkup, explain that it’s a well-child visit. The doctor will check on how you’re growing and developing, and also ask questions and examine you to make sure that your body is healthy. Tell her she’ll get a chance to ask any questions she wants to about her body and health. Also, stress that all healthy kids go to the doctor for such visits.
If the visit is to diagnose and treat an illness or other condition, explain – in very non-scary language – that the doctor needs to examine you to find out how to fix this and help you get better.
Tell kids what to expect during the routine exam
Children learn best during play, and this may be a time when they feel most comfortable asking questions about their fears. You can try role play by using a doll or teddy bear to show a young child how the doctor might use a blood pressure cuff to “hug an arm” or a reflex hammer to tap on the knees.
“I try to establish a rapport by talking to the child and involving them,” said Dr. Burkam. “Many children are curious about our tools and I will let them hold the stethoscope, place it on their own chest or shine the otoscope on their finger first so they can see the painless glow. I also think being silly helps the child feel at ease and sometimes I will make intentional mistakes to appear less intimating like placing the stethoscope on their head and saying, ‘Do we listen here?’ which makes most kids giggle.”
If your child is going to the doctor because of an illness or medical condition or is going to visit a specialist, you may not know what to expect during the exam.
When you’re calling to make the appointment, ask to speak to the doctor or a nurse to find out, in a general way, what will take place during the office visit and exam.
Be honest, but not brutally honest, with your child. Let him know if a procedure is going to be somewhat embarrassing, uncomfortable or even painful, but don’t go into alarming detail. Reassure your child that you’ll be there and that the procedure is truly necessary to fix – or find out how to fix – the problem.
Kids can cope with discomfort or pain more easily if they’re forewarned, and they’ll learn to trust you if you’re honest with them.
Involve your child in the process
Get your child involved in preparing for the visit by gathering information for the doctor and writing down questions.
Let your child contribute to a list of symptoms that you create for the doctor. Also, before the visit, prepare a list of your child’s previous illnesses and medical conditions.
Ask your child to think of questions to ask the doctor and write them down. Or, if kids are old enough, they can write down and ask the questions themselves. If the problem has happened before, list the things that have worked and the things that haven’t worked in previous treatment.
Kids will be reassured by your active role in their medical care and will learn from your example. This will also help prepare you to give the doctor information vital to making an informed diagnosis.
Choose a doctor who relates well to kids
Because your doctor is your best ally in helping your kids cope with health exams, it’s important to carefully select a doctor. Of course, you want one who’s knowledgeable and competent. However, you also want a doctor who understands kids’ needs and fears and who communicates easily with them in a friendly manner, without talking down to them.
“Many times kids come in with characters on their clothing or a favorite toy, so I use that to try and connect with their interests,” said Dr. Burkam. “Sometimes they reference a cartoon doctor and I will sing the jingle and explain that the visit won’t be scary.”
If your child’s doctor seems critical, uncommunicative, disinterested or unsympathetic, do not be afraid to change doctors. Ask for recommendations from other parents in your area or from other doctors whose opinions you trust.
If your child’s illness or condition requires a specialist, ask your doctor to recommend someone who’s knowledgeable, experienced and friendly. After all, adults want these characteristics in their own doctors, so as a parent you should be your child’s advocate in seeking medical care.
(c) 2016. Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth(R). Used under license.