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Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctor

Visits to the paediatrician are a rite of parenthood. If your kid has a fear of the doctor or dentist, it's time to conquer it.

By Tamar Satov
Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctor

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctor

Dreading the doctor

It’s not unusual for kids to have a fear of doctors (the medical term for this is iatrophobia). Certainly, a child’s personality and threshold for pain can make a difference, but there’s also a cognitive element, says Liz Siydock, a child life specialist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. She helps kids deal with health-care-related fears and anxieties. “Fear is created; we are not born with it,” she says, adding that adults often inadvertently instill fear in children. For example, if a well-meaning parent says, “Don’t worry,” the child — who may not have been worried at all — now thinks, “Should I be worried?"

Similarly, if a parent says a needle “won’t hurt a bit,” the child may feel betrayed when she feels even a small amount of pain. So what can you do to prevent or alleviate fears of the doctor or dentist? Read on for some tips.

A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 issue with the headline "Dreading the doctor," pp.36-8.

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: Glow Images

Acknowledge their fears

Don’t tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, or that it’s all in their head. Kids want their feelings validated and will find a way to get you to recognize their fears — even if it means throwing a tantrum or being physical, says Siydock. Instead, ask kids to explain what they’re afraid of. They can draw pictures or use puppets. If they don’t know what they’re fearful of, ask them at what point during the appointment they become afraid.

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: Mlenny/iStockphoto.com

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Desensitize through exposure

Some doctors or dentists will let you come by for a visit so the child can become familiar with the environment — and the equipment — before a scheduled appointment. My son’s dentist, for example, let Adam take a ride on the chair and introduced him to “Mr. Thirsty,” a.k.a. the suction tool. Playing with gauze, rubber gloves or a toy stethoscope can also help kids know what to expect. Exposure is a technique that has helped 10-year-old Jordyn Bennett, who has spina bifida, deal with a lifetime of medical appointments. When she was two, her mom, Natalie, wisely prepared her with a toy doctor’s kit. “The doctor would listen to her heart, and then she’d listen to his,” says Bennett.

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: ImagesbyTrista/iStockphoto.com

Tell them what to expect

We fear what we don’t know, so take some time to explain what will happen at any given appointment. If you’re not sure, call ahead and ask. Be as truthful as possible, but don’t create too much of a buildup — talk to preschoolers three to four days before an appointment, one week prior for children four to seven, and two weeks ahead for older kids, so they have a chance to discuss their fears with friends, says Siydock.

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: Camrocker/iStockphoto.com

Offer some control

When kids make decisions they feel empowered, so allow choices whenever possible — for example, where they want to sit (on the exam table or your lap) and what they want to check first (height or weight). Bennett also tries to let Jordyn choose the day and time of the appointment (before or after school, or perhaps during gym class) and an activity to do afterward (shopping, swimming, going for gelato). Martin found it helpful to let Emily come up with a “pre-show” routine about a week before a recent surgery. “She decided what she’d have for dinner the night before, what she’d do in the morning before we left for the hospital, what movie she’d watch in the car on the way over — and she could focus on that instead of the surgery,” says Martin. “We talked about our plan again a day or two before and she didn’t put up a fight.”

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: sjlocke/iStockphoto.com

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Provide distractions

Like putting a movie on in the car, distractions can be as simple as playing I Spy, singing a song or making funny faces — anything that can take your child’s attention away from his anxiety during the appointment. Blowing bubbles or a pinwheel are good choices, says Bennett, because not only are they fun, they also make kids take deep breaths, which is calming. Anxiety can build up in the waiting room so, in case of delays, bring activities such as books, video games, colouring books or a tablet. Martin discovered that a talisman, like a “bravery bead necklace,” was also beneficial. “Emily said, ‘Mommy, I think these beads really are making me brave.’ We will definitely take them to her next checkup.”

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: jhorrocks/iStockphoto.com

Consider pain relief

If the child’s main fear is physical pain, a preemptive dose of acetaminophen or a topical anaesthetic, such as Emla cream, may help. Bennett also relies on non-medicinal pain relievers, such as ice or the “buzzy bee,” a small device that vibrates to desensitize an area of skin.

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: CandyBoxImages/iStockphoto.com

Seek out help

Both Martin’s and Bennett’s daughters have worked with a child life specialist, such as Siydock, whose services are covered under provincial health plans with a referral. “It’s another person who can phrase things in a different way to be helpful,” says Bennett. Having the right people on your child’s health team creates the happiest patients — and parents

Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctorPhoto: Yuri_Arcurs/iStockphoto.com

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Tips to help relieve your child's fear of the doctor
This article was originally published on Nov 15, 2012

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