Taking your child to the doctor can be incredibly overwhelming. Children can often become frightened and anxious over what will occur. They may not fully understand what will happen and why. The unfamiliar environment, medical team, or previous clinical experience may increase their fears and make it that much more difficult.
As a parent of two little ones, I use my skills as a child life specialist to help prepare them for what they will experience. It helps calm their nerves and mine. Here are five easy steps that you can follow to get through the doctor visit, feeling confident and comfortable.
1. Get the Facts Call your pediatrician ahead of time to find out exactly what will occur at the visit. Do they need a vaccination, blood test or urine sample? The more information you have than the better you are to explain.
2. Be Honest and Validate Children need to feel that they can trust you. They will look to you for the answers and support. Let them know that they have a doctor appointment coming up. Help them remember by bringing up the last time they were at the office. Was it a routine checkup? Sick visit? How will this appointment be similar or different?
If they ask if they will get a shot, be honest. You can tell them, “Yes, you will be getting a shot. I know that you don’t like them, but I will be there to help you get through it.” Remember to validate and normalize their feelings. They don’t want to hear, “It’s just a little pinch or big boys/girls don’t cry.” The reality is that it does hurt, adults don’t like them either, but as parents we know the importance of the vaccination.
3. Books and Medical Play Reading a book about going to the doctor is a great start in preparing them. “It’s Time For Your Checkup: What to expect when going to a doctor visit” is a book that I published to help explain all the steps, including a blood test and vaccination. It is a social story and can be used for children at all developments.
After you have read a book, let your child explore with medical play. Use a play doctor kit filled with pretend and real materials, such as bandages, syringes, gauze, tape and rubber bands. Have them choose their favorite doll or stuffed animal and explore with the doctor kit. Give them some time to play on their own. What role are they playing? How are they using the materials? Are they asking questions or quiet and focused?
After they have become comfortable with the doctor kit, go through each step that they will experience at their checkup. Use simple language in explaining what will happen and why. Think about explaining the steps using their five senses. They will be able to have a better understanding and process what will happen.
4. Coping Strategies While you are playing or talking about what will occur, offer them choices and coping strategies. Do they want to sit on your lap in a therapeutic position or sit by themselves? Do they want to watch or look away? Do they want to ask and answer questions or have you speak on their behalf? The more choices they have, the more control they will feel.
It can be difficult for kids to relax their body when they are very upset. Practice deep breathing, with bubble blowing or pretending to blow out birthday candles. This is a great technique to use when they are receiving a vaccination or blood test. Envisioning that they are somewhere else, listening to music, playing an I-Spy game, holding a comfort item or singing are also different ideas. What do they want to choose?
5. Packing a Coping Kit They now know what to expect and have made choices in ways to help distract and cope with the procedures. Give them some time to pack their own coping kit. They can pack the bag with comfort items, toys, snacks and even their own character bandages. This is a great way to keep them entertained while waiting for the doctor and to decrease anxiety during the procedures.
Remember to validate their feelings, use supportive language and let them choose a bravery item or treat for getting through the exam.
Shani Thornton is a Certified Child Life Specialist and parent of two young boys. She provides in-home child life services from her private practice in Nassau County, New York. To get more resources on parenting and child life, follow her blog at ChildLifeMommy.com