Babies & Toddlers: Ages 0-2
Even if babies can't understand your words, they can comprehend your reassuring tone. Infants get upset quickly, but also calm down quickly. Because they have a limited attention span, it helps to administer medicine quickly and then provide a distraction. As babies get older, you can start explaining why a medication or procedure is necessary.
Toddlers respond to choices and distraction. They love rituals and may want a certain video, toy or book to accompany the process. You might say, "Go get your stuffed animal and give her the medicine, and then you take it." Toddlers and preschoolers may also enjoy giving pretend medicine to mom or the doctor.
Preschoolers: Ages 2-5
At this stage, children want options and they want control. While you can't give them the option of not taking the medicine, you can often give a choice of how or when they do it (within reason). You might say, "After you take the medicine you can have chocolate milk or juice. Which would you like?" or "Which arm do you want for the injection?" As kids gets older, you can offer more time-sensitive choices, such as "Do you want to get dressed before taking your medicine or afterwards?"
School Age: Ages 5 -11
At this stage, choices are still important, but the options can be broader. Kids this age can understand why they need medicine or treatment. If a child has asthma, for example, she will be able to understand why she needs her inhaler to breathe. It helps to engage a child in the treatment plan so she can take some responsibility for her health. This is a good time to ask questions such as, "How can I help you?" or "What do you need?"
When children at this age resist following directions, you can try giving them an "out" by taking a short break and then resuming. School-age kids are often very aware of side effects, so discuss them, offer reassurance and talk with your doctor together.
Preteen & Teen Ages: 12 & Up
Older children and teenagers can take responsibility for their own health. They know that taking their medicine will help them feel better; they just don't always want to do it. Most teenagers refuse to take their medicine at some point during treatment, because on some level - no matter how sick they may be - they feel immortal. This resistance is to be expected, but it also needs to be dealt with.
It helps to remind teenagers that taking care of their health demonstrates maturity and trustworthiness, and that this behavior leads to adult-type privileges. You can also tell them that not taking care of yourself demonstrates that you still need a parent to do this for you. However, social worker Mary Mathews urges parents not to explain this in a punitive way. For example, instead of saying, "Because you didn't take your medicine, you can't go to the movies," you might phrase this more positively, saying, "You're showing me that you are not ready to do these things on your own." In this way, you are helping teens see a way out - and revealing consequences, instead of threatening punishments.