Helping Kids Who Are Scared of Going to the Doctor
How to calm fears and let kids know what to expect, for a smoother visit for everyone.
Let’s be honest: Few of us look forward to doctor appointments, but when kids are scared of going to the doctor, parents know that even run-of-the mill checkups can turn into major meltdowns. We’ve put together some tips to help your family’s next visit go more smoothly.
For kids who are scared of going to the doctor, knowing what to expect can be a big help. “When kids are anxious about going to the doctor they’re often imagining something much worse than what’s actually going to happen,” says Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “They may worry that everything is going to hurt or think that having to visit the doctor means they’re sick.”
Likewise, Dr. Busman says, kids who aren’t expecting a shot — or a long wait — and get one are more likely to get anxious or upset than those who’ve had time to prepare. Laying out how the appointment will go step-by-step will help your child manage his expectations and his anxiety.
Avoid using blanket terms or vague explanations like: “The doctor is going to give you a check-up.” Instead, explain each step in a clear, detailed way your child can easily understand: “After we go into the exam room the doctor will listen to your heartbeat with a tool called a stethoscope…”
If your child is fixating on the BIG question — “Am I going to get a shot?” — it can be tempting to reassure him, even if you’re not 100 percent sure he won’t need one. But it’s best to be honest about what you know — and what you don’t.
“It’s important not to lie,” says Dr. Bernhard Wiedermann, an infectious diseases physician at Children’s National Health System in Washington D.C. “It’s better to say, ‘I’m not sure, but we can ask the doctor as we get there.’ ” Being straightforward will help build trust, and ensure that your child won’t feel betrayed or blindsided if things don’t go as planned.
“When kids are anxious, as parents we want to say, ‘It will be fine! There’s nothing to be afraid of,’” says Dr. Busman. “But in doing that we’re shutting the child down.” Instead, she says, parents can validate feelings and model healthy ways of handling anxiety by offering themselves up as exhibit A.
For example: “I understand how you feel. I was really nervous before my doctor’s appointment last week, but I’m glad I went. Going to the doctor is how we stay healthy.”
Work through worries
Once you’ve talked about how the doctor’s appointment will go, give your child a chance to talk to you about why he’s nervous and ask any questions he might have — even if it takes a little while to get there. “Kids don’t always know how to explain what they’re feeling,” says Dr. Busman. “If your child just says, ‘I don’t want to go. I’m scared,’ help him work through the specifics of what he’s feeling anxious about. That way you can address it more effectively.”
If your child is having a hard time expressing his worries, try asking questions to help him narrow it down. For example: “Let’s go over everything that’s going to happen tomorrow. Stop me when we get to something that sounds scary. That way we can talk about how to make it less scary before we go.”
Manage your own anxiety
If your child isn’t feeling well, he may not be the only one feeling anxious. When kids are sick, it’s natural to be nervous, but it’s important to manage your anxiety in an appropriate way.
“Parents’ anxiety can easily rub off on kids,” says Dr. Wiedermann. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t express your concerns to the doctor, just that it’s important to find the right time — and place — to do so.
“If you’re feeling anxious, or have questions that might not be appropriate to ask in front of your child, ask to speak to the doctor while your child is getting checked-in,” says Dr. Wiedermann “It will help your child stay calm and give you a chance to give the doctor a heads up about your concerns before the appointment begins.”
Help the doctor
“As doctors we want our patients and their families to feel comfortable,” says Dr. Wiedermann , “and having feedback from parents can be very helpful.”
Some examples of useful feedback could be:
- Asking the doctor to slow down and explain things step-by-step
- Requesting she use kid-friendly language so your child can be part of the conversation
A lot of doctors who work with children have tricks to help kids feel more relaxed, but not all of them work on all kids, notes Dr. Pamela Parker, a pediatrician in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hence it’s important for parents to let the doctor know what has worked for their child and what hasn’t.
For example, if a kid seems wary of the instruments, Dr. Parker says she’ll often ask him to act as her “assistant” during the visit. “I’ll say, ‘This tool helps me look in your ears. Could you help me by holding it while I get ready?’ ”
For some kids, being part of the process is a big help, but others may not find it useful. “It’s not always immediately clear how kids are feeling in the exam room,” explains Dr. Parker, “so it’s helpful for us if parents say, ‘He really enjoyed being your helper last time. Could you do that again?’ Or, ‘You know, I don’t think he liked holding the stethoscope, could we try something different this time?’ ”
In a perfect world your child would be seen on time every time, but it’s more likely you’ll be spending at least a little while in your doctor’s waiting room. Most pediatricians’ offices provide toys, but if your child is anxious, don’t rely on an old copy of Highlights magazine to help him stay calm. Instead, allow him to choose a favorite game or book to bring along that will help keep his mind occupied during the wait.
The straight talk on shots
“Your child is going to have to get a shot at some point,” says Dr. Busman, “so it’s important to frame them in a rational way.” When it comes to shots, a healthy dose of honesty — and perspective — is the best way to go.
- Be straightforward: “No one likes getting shots, but they’re a big part of what keeps us healthy, so we all have to get them sometimes.”
- Make it quick: If the thought of getting a shot at the end of the appointment adds to your child’s anxiety, try checking with the doctor’s office ahead of time to see if it’s possible to get it out of the way at the beginning of the visit.
- Don’t put it off: “Kids try all kinds of things to get out of shots,” says Dr. Parker, but she says it’s best not to give in. “If your child doesn’t get the shot today, he’ll just need it next time.”
- Put it in perspective: For most kids (and some grown-ups) the fear of getting a shot is usually much worse than the shot itself. “Try putting things in perspective,” says Dr. Busman. “Remember the last time you had a shot? It was over so quickly and then afterwards you went to basketball practice!”
- Get it over with: “Needle phobia is a real thing,” says Dr. Parker, “and for some kids, being reasonable is just not an option in the moment.” In those cases, she says the best thing parents can do is just help the child stay as calm as possible and wait for the storm to pass. “Once the shot is over, kids who were screaming bloody murder just a moment ago will say, ‘Oh, is that all?’ ” says Dr. Parker. “The trick is to get it over with as quickly as possible, and then move on.”
Once the shots are over, offer praise and positive reinforcement: “I’m so proud of you. You were scared but you did it anyway! That was really brave.”
When anxiety means something more
Most kids are a little scared of going to the doctor, but once the Band-Aid is on and they’re out the door they quickly move on to the next thing. Persistent or severe anxiety could be a sign of something more serious. Some signs to watch for include:
- Your child begins worrying over a doctor’s visit weeks or even months before he’s scheduled for a check-up
- Your child frequently expresses concerns that he, or another family member, might be seriously ill or dying
- He obsesses about the doctor’s appointment or his health long after the visit has ended
- Anxiety about visiting the doctor is affecting his ability to focus on other activities
If your child’s doctor anxiety seems excessive, it may be time to consider having him evaluated by a professional.
The bottom line
Going to the doctor may never become something your child enjoys, but it’s a necessary part of staying healthy throughout his life. Helping him develop the tools and resilience he needs to manage his anxiety will make future visits less stressful for everyone involved.