When a child is afraid of the doctor, it can turn a trip to the pediatrician’s office into a nightmare for parents. The following tips and suggestions can help you alleviate your child’s fear and ensure that these trips go much more smoothly.
Why kids are afraid of the doctor
There are several down-to-earth reasons a child might fear the doctor:
- Perhaps most prominently, doctors are associated with shots in a child’s mind, and therefore pain
- The setting itself can be scary for some kids, who find the sterile environment and all of the medical supplies intimidating.
- Lying on an examination table while you’re being poked and prodded by a virtual stranger can leave a child feeling vulnerable.
- Doctors are associated with illness. A child who visits the pediatrician’s office during times when they feel awful may come to link the two. Older children may also worry that the doctor will find something wrong with them. (See hypochondria and fear of illness in children.)
Dealing with a child’s fear of the doctor: Tips for managing doctor’s appointments
- Be open and honest about what they should expect. One nurse at a pediatrician’s office advises: “To best help prepare a child for a checkup, be honest about what’s going to happen at the doctor’s office! If your child asks if he’s going to get shots, for example, don’t lie – because if you do, your child is more likely to get upset when the nurse or doc walks in to give an immunization.” (Parents, Nov. 2012, p. 106) Lying and saying that there won’t be shots or surprising a child with them once you’re there only makes the doctor seem more unpredictable, untrustworthy, and therefore more scary.
- Help them feel more in control by giving your child small choices ahead of time: For a treat afterwards, should they go to Dairy Queen or McDonalds? If they get anxious during the visit, will they think about horses, or kittens? Finding small areas where they can exercise a preference helps them feel more in control over the situation.
- Whenever an appointment involves immunizations, see our guidelines for helping children get their shots.
- Encourage the doctor to talk to your child and explain what will happen next so that they can mentally prepare. This chitchat often helps your child feel more at ease. Even playing simple pointing games can help. Dr Alan Greene states that when he’s seen a young child for an earache, “simply asking, ‘where is your nose? Where is your ear?’ can make all the difference in how the exam goes. Once the toddler points to his ear, and we’ve both seen that he understands, he is much more likely to let me peek in without protest.” (Greene, 2009, p 220)
- Engage in conversation yourself. Keeping a child preoccupied with a discussion about her pet or favorite toy can alleviate anxiety.
- Ask if you can help with the examination. Children may feel more comfortable if their parent helps hold the stethoscope or also tries to feel whatever the doctor is feeling for on her belly.
- Be sure not to stoke your child’s anxieties. As one pediatrician advises, “as soon as you say ‘He doesn’t like it when you look in his ears,’ you remind your child of the last time and set us up for another failure.” (Readers Digest, March 2012, p. 37)
Helping children overcome their fears of the doctor
- Be sure to talk about the purpose of shots and how they are a type of medicine that we take to protect ourselves from getting a painful disease. Otherwise, children who don’t understand the purpose of shots may simply see the doctor as someone who likes to hurt them. Talk about shots as “a little pinch that saves us from a lot of pain later.”
- Many parents inadvertently contribute to their child’s fear of the doctor by making statements which make the doctor seem scarier. “It’s shocking,” says one nurse, “how often I overhear parents in the waiting room say, ‘If you don’t stop that, I’m going to tell the nurse to give you a shot.’ Obviously I know that parents just want their kids to behave well, but turning doctor’s visits into a punishment only makes the office that much scarier the next time.” (Parents, Nov. 2012, p. 106) Adults also commonly make statements about hating to go to the doctor or will tease a child about getting shots. All of these things will make children more anxious and scared.
- Focus more on the role doctors have in keeping us healthy, rather than their function as someone we see when we’re sick.
- Help children relieve their anxiety through play. Throw a bed sheet over a table somewhere in your house, and either purchase a play doctor set from the store or gather different tools and items from around the house to use as props: band aids, cloth bandages, a damp sponge, tweezers, and so on. Conduct play sessions with your child, letting them take turns being both the doctor and patient.
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