A visit to the pediatrician could be anxiety-provoking for a young child. It’s not surprising. The doctor’s office can be full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensations. So how can a parent help ease his or her child’s fears?
“Feeling out of control is scary, especially for a toddler whose verbal ability is still limited,” Dania Lindenberg, MD, a pediatrician with Scripps Coastal Medical Center. “Parents can be very helpful in easing these anxieties.”
Here are some suggestions:
- Prepare your child for what to expect. Tell your child what may happen during the doctor’s visit ahead of time, but be brief. “Never lie to a child and never make promises that may be broken during a visit,” says Dr. Lindenberg. For example, you shouldn’t promise that a visit to the doctor won’t hurt, because there may be immunizations or blood draws. What you can say is, “I don’t know if you will get a shot this time. If you do, it will be over very quickly and will probably feel like a pinch.” You might even consider bringing happy face stickers to put on the bandage as a reward for bravery.
- Help your child build patient-doctor trust. Try to establish a relationship with a particular doctor so that your child can get to know him or her over time. An appointment with a faceless “doctor” will always be more frightening than being able to say it’s “time to go see doctor ____.” It’s never too early to establish a personal relationship with a primary doctor.
- Role play at home. If your child is especially anxious, Dr. Lindenberg suggests playing doctor at home. First, you should use play instruments to listen to your child’s heart, look in her ears, and check her eyes and teeth. Then, let her give you or her favorite doll an exam. The more your child is exposed to routine medical exam procedures, the less frightening they will be.
- Set your child’s mind at ease. Reassure your child that you and the doctor are a team, and you are both on the same side. Remind your child that you will be with him the whole time, and emphasize that the doctor is there to help him or her stay or get well.
- Find common ground. Let your doctor know some of your child’s interests to help draw your child into conversation —whether it’s Legos, Sesame Street, a favorite movie or other age-appropriate conversation fodder. Establishing common ground can help the doctor build trust and rapport with your child.
- Remove the white-coat fear effect. If your child’s pediatrician still dresses formally, consider asking the doctor to remove the white coat during your child’s visit. The lack of a uniform may help to remove a fear trigger from the situation.
- Be calm and carry on. “As difficult as it may seem, do your best to avoid appearing anxious yourself during the appointment,” says Dr. Lindenberg. “Your child will pick up on your mood, so smile, relax your shoulders, breathe slowly and speak in a warm, reassuring tone.”
Despite your best efforts, it may turn out you have a child who cries every time she even gets near the doctor’s office. Don’t worry — this will likely get better as she grows older. Be patient, be firm, be supportive, be understanding, and try to remain calm.