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Making doctor visits a pleasant experience for children

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

See Aletha Solter's books, Helping Young Children Flourish and Attachment Play for more information about helping children cope with medical situations.

Question:

I would like to know if there are any tips on how to get kids to go to the doctor without being scared...Please let me know. Thank you.

Answer:

It is quite common and normal for children to be afraid of going to the doctor. However, with adequate preparation, visits to the doctor can go more smoothly. There are several things you can do to prepare children so they will know what to expect and be less frightened and more cooperative.

For non-emergency situations:

First of all, I suggest that you read books to your children about doctors and illness. There are many books for children about going to the doctor. These can help children know what to expect, and the books provide opportunities to ask questions, voice concerns, and clarify misunderstandings.

Another way to prepare children and to reduce fear is to role-play the doctor's visit ahead of time. This is especially useful when there will be a painful procedure such as a vaccination or blood test. You can use a doctor's kit and play the role of the doctor. In order to lighten things up and elicit laughter, you can pretend to be an incompetent doctor who doesn't know how to do things right. Another way to role-play the scene is to have the patient be a doll or stuffed animal, and encourage your child to be the doctor. Also, you yourself can play the role of the patient. In this case, you can put on a mock display of resistance, and let your child "win" by finally giving you the pretend vaccination. Anything that helps your child laugh during this role-playing will be helpful in reducing tensions and anxiety about going to the doctor. Your child may want to repeat these games many times. I recommend playing them as often as your child wants.

It is best to tell young children about upcoming visits to the doctor one to two days ahead of time. There is no point in telling them weeks in advance, because they will only build up more apprehension. On the other hand, an hour's warning is not enough, because they need time to ask questions and prepare themselves through role-playing, as suggested above.

For emergency situations:

If your child is sick or injured and needs to go to the doctor or hospital immediately, then you will not be able to give much advance warning. You can simply say that you need to take him/her to the doctor. No matter how young the child, it is important to explain why you are going to the doctor, and to describe what the doctor will probably do. For example, if you suspect that your child has an ear infection, you can say, "I am taking you to a doctor. The doctor will look into your ear to find out why it hurts so much. He/she will tell me what medicine to buy to help you get better. He/she may also look into your mouth and nose, and tap your chest, like this." (Demonstrate what the doctor will do).

It is unrealistic to expect children under the age of four years to cooperate willingly with medical personnel, especially in an emergency situation when they are feeling sick and scared. They are simply too young to understand. From five years on, children are generally more cooperative because they understand better the need for the procedures. Try to stay calm yourself, acknowledge your child's feelings, and explain what the doctor is doing.

In general:

1. Stay with your child

Part of children's fear of doctors is a fear of being abandoned. It is therefore very important that you stay with your child at all times. This may not be possible if your child needs surgery or an X-ray, but in all other situations, you can insist that you be permitted to stay with your child. Doctors and nurses sometimes tell parents to leave because they claim the children are more cooperative without their parents. This is only because some (but not all) children become passive and docile when they are feeling terrified. It is not worth the sense of betrayal and abandonment that will result if you leave your child in the hands of strangers in a frightening situation. This will only add to your child's stress level. Reassure your child that you will stay with him or her. If you need to leave for a few minutes (for example, during an X-ray), tell your child that you will be on the other side of the door for your own protection from X-rays, and that you will be right back.

2. Give choices

Whenever possible, it is always helpful to give children choices, which will help to reduce feelings of anxiety and powerlessness. For example, you can let them choose which arm to have a vaccination in, or which finger to have pricked for a blood test. Children past infancy can be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they need pain-killing medication.

3. Let your child express emotions

It is important to let children express emotional and physical pain. It is normal and healthy for children to cry when they are frightened or hurt. If they are frightened, you can acknowledge and reflect back their feelings without minimizing them, while giving information about what to expect: "You're feeling pretty scared. It's okay to be scared about getting a shot. It might hurt a little, but it will soon be over." If they are experiencing physical pain, you can say, "I know it really hurts. It's okay to cry." Children should never be praised for being "brave" if this implies that they didn't cry. True courage is doing something difficult. Whether a child cries or not should not be an issue for comment or praise. If the health practitioners try to stop or distract your child from crying, you can say calmly but firmly, "My child is very upset. It's important for him to know that it is okay to cry here." This will help to reassure the nurses that you are not expecting them to do something to stop your child from crying. Being allowed to cry freely will help your child relax. It will also help to prevent later nightmares and phobias that sometimes occur following trauma.

4. Role-play the visit afterwards.

After you have returned from the doctor, whether it was an emergency or non-emergency visit, it is a good idea to help your child role-play the visit using a toy doctor's kit. You can encourage your child to be the doctor and use yourself or a doll as the patient. This will help to reduce any residual anxiety or frustrations, and will make the next visit to the doctor easier.

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Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

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This page was last updated on March 6, 2013. Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.