Dealing with Dr. Phobia

When your child is afraid of the doctor

By Wendy Burt

It’s that time of year again. Time to breathe the pungent odor of disinfectants and sterile environments. Time to squirm at the thought of shots and needles full of blood. Time to dread that crowded waiting room with old magazines and bad music. That’s right; it’s time for a physical.

But this time it’s your child’s turn. And although for most parents, taking their child to the doctor is worse than going themselves, many children actually enjoy it. But for those who still feel the anxiety associated with a visit to the doctor, here are a few ways to help ease the butterflies, for both of you.

1. Understand your child’s fears
Children fear different things depending on their age. Newborn babies cry because they are being undressed and handled. Be sure that your doctor’s office is warm enough for your unclothed baby to be examined.

Babies between the ages of 6 months and 2 years sometimes exhibit symptoms of stranger anxiety. Ask your pediatrician to examine your baby while you are holding her. Bring along a familiar blanket or toy to help her relax.

Older children may become uncomfortable about being seen naked. This sometimes starts around 7 or 8 years of age, but may begin as early as 5. Although it may help to allow your child to see a doctor of the same sex, Dr. Karen Childs of The Penrose-St. Francis Medical Group in Colorado Springs, Colorado explains that this may not be necessary. “Before ending a long-term relationship with a physician that you’ve come to trust and respect, discuss your child’s fears with him or her. Explain that the doctor does not look at him or her in the same way that a friend might. Help your child to understand what a ‘professional’ relationship is all about.” Also, ask your child if they would like you to leave the room. Most 5-10 year -olds will prefer their parent to remain, while adolescents may be embarrassed by their presence.

Be sure that your child’s fear is of the visit and not the doctor. If your child is exceptionally fearful, observe whether the fear is justified by the doctor’s behavior. A doctor should be gentle with children, not intimidating. If your child is still unusually fearful, consider changing physicians.

2. Explain what is going on
As children age, they become fearful when they come to associate the doctor’s office with certain things. Throat cultures, shots and blood tests are often painful or generally uncomfortable. Be honest with your child about what to expect and then explain why each procedure is necessary. Ask your doctor to explain things as they are done. Offer to hold your child’s hand.

Fear of the unknown is usually scarier than knowing the truth. Pretend checkups at home can help alleviate some of your child’s fear. Check your local toy store for a doctor’s kit or read books about visiting the doctor.

3. Watch your own reactions
Non-verbal communication is understood by even the youngest children. Stay calm and relaxed as much as possible. Attempt to avoid fidgeting and foot tapping. Many children learn fears from watching others.

It may seem obvious to point out, but what you say can have a big impact on your child’s feelings toward going to the doctor. “Instead of saying, ‘oh no, we have to go to the doctor’,” says Dr. Childs, “try referring to the appointment in a positive light with ‘today you get to go see Dr. So-and-So. I bet she gives you a sticker again!’ And remember that how you say things is as important as what you say.”

4. Think ahead
Children's fears may increase as they sit in the waiting room. Hearing other children cry may instill fear that they did not have on their own. Call ahead to be sure that appointments are running on schedule to avoid long waits. Bring your child's favorite books, toys or healthy snacks to relax them while they wait.

Avoid telling children about their appointment too far in advance. Too much buildup can increase anxiety. The general rule is: tell a 2-3 year-old the day of the visit, a 4-5 year-old the day before, and older children several days in advance.

“Most importantly,” says Dr. Childs, “remember that communication is the key, both verbal and nonverbal. Take the time to watch and listen to your child, and it will make any trip to the physician easier and more enjoyable, for both of you.”

Also see: Does Your Child Have a Cold or Are Allergies Setting In?