Say “AH!”: How to Ease Doctor Day Jitters in Kids

doctor kid(In October, we held a funny health care story contest. We’ve already chosen a winner, but here’s an honorable mention that was too good to keep to ourselves.)

“My two year-old granddaughter wasn’t feeling well, so I took her to the doctor to see what was going on. The doctor looked in her ears and said, “It looks like you have a strawberry in your ear.” My granddaughter loves strawberries, and her eyes perked up, but she didn’t say anything until we were driving home. I noticed she was poking at her ear, and asked her if she was hurting. She told me she was hungry and was trying to get the strawberry out to eat it!”

—Submitted by Jo Anne

“What a relief for the grandmother!” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician, parenting writer and mother of four. “This doctor provided a distraction without scaring her, engaging her imagination and letting her think about her uncomfortable ear in a different way.”

Children often experience Doctor Day jitters, according to Dr. Gilboa. The prospect of possible physical and emotional discomfort, stranger anxiety, and the intimidating “unknown” all contribute to D-Day unease. This reluctance may manifest itself through sullenness, silence, hiding, or acting what Dr. Gilboa calls “acting too good.”

“The child or teen that feels that being a “perfect student” in the room will make the whole experience go faster and easier,” says Dr. Gilboa.  “They are not always wrong; the problem is that they are often not honest about how they are feeling or what is happening because they are trying to guess what answer the doctor wants.”

Pediatricians and family physicians have a number of tactics to make doctor’s visits easier. Some doctors “examine” a parent, older sibling or stuffed animal first. “There are lots of opportunities for play and laughter before any kind of examination,” avers Dr. Gilboa.

Whether your child is unwilling or too willing in the doctor’s office, “Parents can make a big difference!” says Dr. Gilboa. She recommends following these tips to make your little one more at ease:

  • Show empathy. Many parents seem to feel that if they acknowledge their child’s fears the child will think that they don’t have to go through with the visit. Not so! A child who feels that a parent understands their fear or dislike will be somewhat calmer. Even toddlers can understand when a parent says “I know this is hard, and you are scared.”
  • Be clear with your child or teen about why this is important.  Bring it all back to love and safety. “You need shots to keep you healthy. I love you, that is why I’m insisting on this. You need to get this blood work taken or swallow this medicine so that we can make (or keep) your body healthy.” Say “I was disappointed too that you can’t sit up front in the car yet, but I’m glad the doctor told us what could happen in an accident.
  • Bring a distraction. During medical procedures kids perceive less pain if they have a movie or video game or good book to focus on. For babies, moms can nurse during vaccines – it has been shown to reduce their discomfort by more than half!
  • Ask the doctor. If you are not clear about why a recommendation or suggestion or guideline exists, ask the doctor. Model for your kids the skill of speaking up and advocating. Ask lots of questions, and encourage your child to ask also!
  • Don’t lie to your kids about what is going to happen. You don’t have to mention shots beforehand, but if they ask and you know there are some vaccines coming up, tell the truth and then distract them if you can. If you are not sure whether or not shots are due, say so. Your kids will benefit from knowing they can trust you to tell them the truth, even if it is a truth they don’t want.  Lastly, don’t threaten your kids with shots.  Sometimes I hear a parent say “If you’re not good, they’re gonna give you a shot!” This makes it really hard to convince kids that we give shots because we love them and want to keep them alive and healthy!

What do you do to help calm D-Day jitters? Let us know on our Facebook page.

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