No kid likes going to the doctor’s office. It’s a terrifying experience for a little person. It’s one of the first times that they’re forced to trust some strange big person who isn’t Mom or Dad with something really serious – and it almost always ends with them getting hurt.
I’d like to say that I’ve raised a perfect child who does nothing but beam smiles when it’s time for a doctor’s appointment, but I haven’t. My son was born with a complete and abject terror of shots and stethoscopes unlike any the world has ever seen. He kicks. He screams. He cries. Sometimes he has to be pinned down.
Or, at least, he used to. We’ve had to work hard to calm our boy down but with a little care and a little help, we’ve managed to get our little screamer to keep from freaking out at the doctor’s office.
Honesty really is the best policy, especially when it comes to stopping a little one's tears. It might be tempting to tell your kid that you’re just going to get ice cream and then drop them off at a Walk-In clinic with a band-aid and a thumbs-up for luck, but it’s not going to save you any tears.
Let your kid know exactly what’s going to happen, including that, if they have to get a shot, it might hurt. When the needle punctures their skin, you don’t want the feeling to be a surprise. You want them to be ready for it and to know how to handle it.
I let my son come with me to my doctor’s appointment, and it worked wonders. He got to watch Dada get a needle in his arm before he had to go through it himself. He got to see that he isn’t the only person who has to go through this.
I didn’t lie. “The needle hurt a little bit,” I told him afterward. “But when I felt it, I just took a deep breath – and when it was over, it didn’t hurt anymore.”
In your kid’s imagination, the doctor’s office is a torture chamber of horrors. They blow the experience out of proportion and, when they have to go again, they convince themselves that they’re about to step into an absolute nightmare. Our job, as parents, is to tone that fantasy down to reality.
A great way to get your child ready for what’s to come is to role play the doctor’s visit before they do it. Let them know everything that’s going to happen and what it’s going to feel like. That means letting them know that stethoscopes are cold, tongue depressors are uncomfortable, and shots hurt, but only for a second.
Reading a book is another way to get kids ready that works wonders. Kids love to play out things they see in stories. After our son read "Corduroy Goes to the Doctor," he was actually eager to make his visit and to prove that he could be every bit as a brave as a patchwork stuffed bear.
Part of what makes visiting the doctor so scary is the feeling of helplessness. A child really has to let go and just let things happen to them. That’s not easy to do. It helps to give them something they can actually control.
We talked to our son about why he needed to get shots before he went in for his vaccinations, and when asked, “How do shots keep me from getting sick?” we realized a way we could give him a little initiative in the room. Instead of just fumbling through a weak explanation of vaccinations, I just told my son that I knew they worked and encouraged him to ask the doctor.
He did. When we went in, he asked the doctor how vaccines worked. It gave him a feeling of taking charge that made him a lot braver.
If you know your kid isn’t the type that’ll ask the doctor questions, there are other things you can do. Let your child pick out a band-aid to bring to their appointment or anything that gives them a little power. It’ll go a long way in calming them down.
If your child has gone through hell at the doctor’s before, there’s a good chance you’re dreading the next appointment every bit as much as they are. But you’re going to have to get that under control because that anxiety rubs off.
Do whatever you can to keep yourself calm before taking your kid in. That might mean talking to the doctor beforehand and going through all the steps here yourself. Find out what’s going to happen, play it out in your mind, and find a way to take a little control.
Or, if you can’t get it under control, it might just mean you need to stay home. If you’re the parent who thinks they need to protect their child from the doctor, you might just need to let your spouse take over on this one.
There’s definitely such thing as spoiling a child with too many rewards, but a child can’t possibly be more deserving of a prize than on the day he overcomes his biggest fear. Bribe your kid for a good doctor’s visit. After all, they've earned it, and you want this to be a positive experience.
Just make sure it’s clear why you’re rewarding your child. Let them know they’re being rewarded for their bravery, and highlight any of the strategies they used to keep from freaking out. Let them know you’re proud of them for tackling something that scared them without breaking down into hysterics and they’ll start associating that kind of bravery with good things, like ice cream.
I’d like to say that I tried all of this once and my son was never afraid of the doctor again, but that’s not exactly what happened.
My son started off tough. He asked the doctor questions, looked away from the needle when it was time for his shots, and, when it went in, he took a deep breath and didn’t cry. He was incredibly proud of himself. A little smile appeared on his face and he told us proudly, “I did it! It’s all over, and I didn’t cry!”
Except he still had three more shots to go.
When the next shot went in, he started crying. “I thought I could do it!” he screamed. “I thought I could do it but I can’t!”
By the last one, he was trying to fight off the nurse while she pinned him down and forced a needle into him like a scene straight out of a horror movie.
It wasn’t exactly a perfect doctor’s visit, but it was a huge improvement. That’s what counts. No child is going to overcome their fears overnight. It’ll take a few tries to get used to going to the doctor without freaking out, but it will happen.