Published on in Health Tip of the Week
Going to the doctor can be a scary experience for young children, and overwhelming even as they get older. You can help ease your child’s worries and make the visit go more smoothly by taking steps to prepare and support your child in positive ways.
Talk with your child about the visit ahead of time
- Prepare a very young child one or two days before the visit. For an older school-age child, a week may be needed to process and prepare.
- Find out from the doctor or the staff what will happen during the visit. Then be honest in describing that to your child.
- Prepare your child ahead of time, in a “safe” place by someone he trusts.
- Explain the experience in language your child will understand. If your child will be getting a vaccine or having a specific medical test, describe the reason for the vaccine or procedure (“a fluid that will go into your body to keep you healthy”), what it will feel like (“a poke or a pinch”), and what will be expected of your child (“it will be your job to hold still.”).
- Understand that it’s a typical reaction for children to cry or become mad or upset when they learn they will get a vaccine or have a procedure. It’s still important for most children to be prepared for this experience. Focus on things they have a choice in (e.g., “It’s OK to feel upset about this. Let’s figure out a way we can make it as easy as possible.”).
- Explain to your child that most visits to the doctor include some time in the waiting room. Include that in your conversation and, together with your child, pack a few things to help pass the time.
- Show your child pictures or videos of doctor visits, or read a book together to help build an image of what will happen. Photographs of doctor visits, flash cards with images, and lists of recommended videos and books can be found on the Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy collection of resources for preparing your child for a doctor's appointment.
- Never trick your child with a surprise visit to the doctor or by being dishonest about what will happen or what it will feel like.
Understand your child’s worries
Children and adolescents often have very intense fears and worries about what will happen during a visit to the doctor. You can help by listening to your child’s worries and addressing them with simple, honest answers. A child’s worries about going to the doctor might include:
- Separation — you might leave them alone with the doctor during the visit.
- Pain — part of the exam might hurt. Concern about shots is common, especially among preschool and school-aged children.
- The doctor — their attitude might be stern and unfriendly.
- The unknown — the visit might include unpleasant surprises. If the visit is for a medical problem, your child may worry that it will lead to surgery or time in the hospital.
Focus on the positives and what you can control
- Be positive yourself. Children are highly attuned to your emotions. Discuss the visit in a relaxed, calm way.
- Try to schedule your appointment for a time that is best for your child, if possible. Some children will have a better experience first thing in the morning while others are more relaxed at the end of the day.
- Develop a relationship with a particular physician or nurse, if you can, so your child looks forward to seeing a particular person rather than an unknown figure.
- Let your child know that you will be with him during the whole visit. Give your teen the choice of whether to have you stay for the exam.
- Think of any special activities you might combine with the visit, even if it’s as simple as lunch together.
- Plan distractions for your child — activities for the time in the waiting room, while you are waiting in the exam room for the doctor, and while any uncomfortable procedures are done. These might include playing a game on your phone, reading a favorite book aloud, or bringing a special toy or singing a song. Involve your child in thinking about distractions and comforts that will be most helpful.
During the visit
- Be relaxed and calm yourself on the day of and during the visit. Your child will take emotional cues from you.
- Hold your child to the same behavior expectations in the waiting area and exam room as you would at home. If you are more rigid or more careless than normal, your child may find that unsettling.
- Have just one adult talk in a comforting way during any part of the exam that makes your child anxious. Too many voices can be confusing and upsetting.
- Get into a comfort position with your young child if they’ll be getting a vaccine.
- Let your child watch if they want to. While some children like to look away during immunizations, many will choose to watch. Either is appropriate and will depend on how the child copes. If your child prefers to watch, allow him to do so. This will build trust and increase his sense of control over the situation.
- Praise your child for specific behaviors, such as holding still or taking big breaths.
Creating positive medical experiences at a young age will help your child develop healthy habits and a healthy attitude toward medical care that will carry into adolescence and adulthood.
Contributed by: Melanie Hoynoski, CCLS, CTLS, Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia