Because of Fred’s medical experiences with his own children, he focused a lot of his work on helping to prepare children – and their parents – for these often stressful situations. To make those times more manageable, he helped children know what to expect and encouraged them to play about a visit to the doctor.
Even though your child may have been going to the doctor since birth, and even though you have a caring doctor, there may come a time when a check-up becomes particularly upsetting. As children grow physically, they’re also growing in awareness of their own bodies and their ability to remember painful past experiences. At the same time, in those preschool years, they have many fantasies and misconceptions.
Children don’t like to be probed and poked, especially when the probing and the poking happen unexpectedly. And they certainly don’t like to have painful or uncomfortable things happening to them. Injections (“shots”) hurt, if just for a moment, stethoscopes are often cold on a chest, and blood pressure cuffs often squeeze an arm. Everyone is better able to manage if we’re prepared by knowing what may hurt as well as what probably won’t hurt.
When children discover that we’ve been honest with them in preparing them for experiences, they grow in their trust not only of us, but also of their doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. That trust will help them all through their life, as they begin to assume responsibility for their own health care needs.
Parents might have some anxiety, too, when they take their child to the doctor. One of the most basic responsibilities of parenting is to see that our children are healthy. So when the doctor tells us that our child is “developing on track and thriving,” that’s a great reassurance that we’re “good parents.” But there’s also a chance that the doctor might find something to be concerned about. Along with the worries about a child’s physical health, the words: “Something’s wrong” are too easily translated as “Something’s wrong with my parenting.”
It’s so important to have a trusting relationship with the people on your child’s medical team. You need to feel comfortable with the way your questions and concerns are answered, and to trust that you’re providing your child with the best medical care you can.
Making Shots More Manageable
Parents often tell me that they dread their child’s doctor appointment because their child may need an immunization. They may feel even guilty for cooperating with the doctor in inflicting that “pain” on their child. A lot of parents are afraid that their child will get upset if they talk about the examination, and particularly the “shot” beforehand. But there are ways to talk about such things, and there are ways to help children manage them. You might ask your child to try to think of ideas that might help make the “pinch” easier to take. Maybe by sitting in your lap, holding on to a “blankey” from home, singing a song really loudly, or taking along a stuffed animal or baby doll to get a pretend shot first! It may also help if you remind your child that the pinch of the injection puts medicine into our bodies and that certain medicines work better when they’re given that way. We take some medicine in our mouths, some with patches, and others with injections. Doctors and nurses know which kinds to give us to keep us healthy. Children don’t need elaborate explanations – they’re generally satisfied with simple, honest answers. It can be a good feeling to give your child some “tools” that make a difference in how he or she handles a difficult experience!
Of course, we can’t anticipate all that will happen in a doctor’s office, but we can be honest about what we do know. Our children trust us more and more each time they find that we’re doing our best to prepare them for whatever they have to go through.
Before Going to the Doctor:
- Talk about doctors and nurses kindly so your child hears that health professionals are “on your team.” Children also like to know that some doctors and nurses were children once, too. They know what it’s like to be a child, and they studied a long time to learn how to help people be healthy. Children might also feel reassured to hear that some doctors and nurses are mothers and fathers with children of their own that they care for and love.
- A day or so before going to the doctor, mention the upcoming visit. Talk about what your child can expect, like the doctor’s equipment, possible procedures, and even the waiting room. Let your child know that you will be right there, the whole time.
- Encourage your children to play about being the doctor for stuffed animals or for other family members. In their play, children are in control, and when they are, they don’t feel so helpless. As they play, they often “rehearse” the procedures, which helps them work on their feelings.
At the Doctor’s Office:
- If there aren’t toys in the waiting room, bring along a few small playthings, a notebook and pencil, and maybe some snack foods.
- Suggest that your child bring along a “blankey” or stuffed animal. Those things can be comforting.
- Some children have a hard time taking off their clothes because it makes them feel too vulnerable. They may have a growing need for body privacy.
After the Doctor’s Office:
- When the doctor visit is over and you’re on your way home, encourage your child to talk about what happened. Once you’re home, your child may want to tell others in the family, as well. Freely talking about the appointment can be very helpful. In fact, whatever difficult things children talk about can be much more manageable just by talking and listening.
- Doctor or dentist play after appointments is just as important as playing beforehand. Adults most often handle stressful experiences by talking about them, but most young children also play about them and draw pictures about them. They might even want to comfort their dolls or stuffed animals, very much like you’ve comforted them.