Published on October 03, 2017

doctor and young patient

Be Honest, Be Direct to Help Kids Afraid of Going to the Doctor

A powerful mixture of fear of the unknown and of pain, and perhaps some feelings of guilt can make many children fear a trip to the doctor’s office.

“Adults, even those who don’t like going to the doctor, have experience to draw upon when it comes to a doctor’s appointment. Kids don’t have that – they can be worried about the unknown or are afraid they will be separated from mom or dad,” said Twila Perkinson, a certified Child Life Specialist with Avera Children’s Hospital. “The worries vary from child to child and depend on age in many cases, but parents can help by being direct and providing kids with distractions and reassurances.”

It’s quite natural for kids to have questions, but for parents, it can be overwhelming. But there are steps you can take that will help your reluctant child make the most of a checkup.

You Know Best What Works

Parents, naturally, know their kids best, Perkinson said, and that’s why there’s no one rule that can be applied outright for calming any and all fears. Some children will do better if they have advance preparation. Other kids, especially those 7 and younger, may do better if they don’t have a few days to fret over the trip to see the doctor.

“If children are worriers, you might work with them to remind them of past visits, to make sure they know it’ll be OK,” Perkinson said. “In other cases, you might just talk about the ‘easier’ parts of a well-child checkup, like the height and weight measurements.”

Some kids may worry because the doctor or nurse may be someone new, but in most cases, moms and dads are welcome to accompany their child into the exam room.

“Let them know that you’ll be right there by their side, holding them or holding their hand,” she said. “Give them choices. You can ask if they want to sit on the exam table or have you hold them – in many cases the pediatrician will be happy to accommodate them.”

Many Emotions in Play

Distractions such as a planning a “fun” outing after the doctor’s visit or perhaps a game or set of pictures on a smart phone can be a good way to occupy young minds and avoid an overwhelmed child, too, Perkinson said. Songs, humming and even breathing together can calm the nerves – both young and old.

“Some kids may feel guilty for getting sick – it sounds surprising, but it happens. They might think, ‘If only I had listened to mom, I wouldn’t have fallen out of the tree and hurt my arm.’ You can help them avoid getting down on themselves with reminders on how everyone gets sick. All kids go to the doctor – it’s the best way to get better,” Perkinson said. “Another key is evaluating your own anxiety as there are many of us adults who fear doctors as well. Be careful to avoid projecting it onto a child.”

Of course in the case of a hospitalization or unplanned trip to an urgent care clinic, the situation will be different. You won’t have time to prepare and stress levels maybe higher. By remaining calm and being positive you can support your child. Those kids who fear vaccinations – that’s a hard one, but you can help.

“Again – being honest is best. Use your word choices carefully – skip the word shots altogether – perhaps say poke – it’s much softer and less scary,” said Perkinson. “When in doubt, talk to the clinical staff or a child life specialist. We can help you – we’re all on the same team with the same goal: healthy kids who are not scared.”

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