Many children are scared about visiting the doctor. This feeling can be a challenge for parents, because children typically have at least 20 well-visits to the pediatrician by the time they are 10 years old, and most likely even more when including sick visits. The combination of being touched by someone who is not familiar to them, the fear of pain from either the shots or the exam and an unfamiliar environment can cause a fear of doctors.
Here are some tips to help your child feel more comfortable at the next appointment:
Knowing what to expect can help decrease anxiety. Consider reading books such as Richard Scarry’s Nicky Goes to the Doctor, The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor, Dora Goes to the Doctor and What to Expect When You Go to the Doctor by Heidi Murkoff. Role play to help your child understand what will happen, and by using a child’s reasons and language explain how the visit will be beneficial: “the shot will keep you healthy so that you can keep playing and having fun.” When you practice in a safe and familiar place, it helps your child feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar location. Get a toy doctor kit and play with the different instruments.
Bringing something from home helps lower stress levels by providing comfort, security and familiarity in an unfamiliar environment. Some doctors will do a practice exam on the dolls or stuffed animals brought from home; that can reduce anxiety. Also consider bringing games or activities that will keep your child distracted while waiting.
To the child, the medical table and the chair the parent sits on can feel 100 miles away from each other. Having the child on your lap or next to you while you hold the hand can help him feel safe. The doctor can feel like a stranger and her touching your child can feel invasive and scary.
Teach your child ways to calm down, like taking deep breaths, focusing on objects in the room, closing the eyes and visualizing being somewhere else. You can also encourage your child to listen to music or a story through headphones. Sometimes, simply talking about what is scary can be helpful. Remind your child that he made it through the last visit and was fine afterwards.
Something pleasant to anticipate
Set up a tradition of a special happening after each visit. Whether it is offering lots of praise and attention or a special trip to the store to get a toy, provide a positive reinforcement at the end of the visit. This is not a reward for not crying or getting upset. It should not be tied to the behavior. It may simply be used as an incentive and as a tool to alleviate anxiety.
Being nervous before a doctor’s appointment is typical. However, if you notice that your child is scared and talking about it weeks or months in advance, and that the fear distracts him from his everyday life, it might be worth considering consulting with a specialist. This may be a sign of deeper anxiety that needs attention.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator. Simonetti is a former kindergarten teacher.