What to do when your child fears the doctor

August 01, 2016 | by Siva Krishnan, MD

Going to the doctor or emergency room can be scary for a kid – and a parent.

A high fever, a deep cut that requires stitches, a broken leg or any of life’s unexpected traumas can cause a great amount of anxiety. If your child is afraid of doctors, the experience may be even more stressful.

There are some ways you can prepare a child that will make a trip to the ER or a check-up at the doctor’s office go more smoothly:

  • Don’t make the doctor out to be the “bad guy.” Don’t use the threat of a shot at the doctor’s office to get your kid to behave. While shots are a regular part of appointments in the early stages of life, they become less frequent as a child gets older. Some appointments only require an assessment, such as checking your ears and throat.
  • Reinforce that a doctor’s job is to help you feel better. If your child isn’t feeling well, or if there is a situation that requires a trip to the ER, a doctor can help you feel better. Tell your child the reason for the visit is so she can get well.
  • Tell your child what’s going on. Be mindful of her age and share the appropriate amount of information so she’ll know what’s happening at each stage of the appointment.
  • Use distractions. Find ways to take your child’s mind off of the visit. Bring a favorite toy or stuffed animal. Coloring books, stickers, bubbles, a portable video game or a television show in the waiting room are also helpful.
  • Don’t make promises. Wait to see if a shot or procedure will be needed before telling your child anything about the treatment. If it’s necessary, be honest and tell your child there might be some discomfort or that a shot may sting a little. Make sure there are no surprises. Being honest will help build your child’s trust for future visits. Next time, they’ll know to expect pain with a shot.
  • Reward him for a good visit. It’s perfectly acceptable to reward your child for being brave and cooperative during an appointment. However, consider the reward and the impact it may have in the future. Popsicles and stickers are effective incentives.
  • Pick a child-friendly ER. Look for a hospital that offers pediatric emergency services, which may shorten your wait time. Colorful walls and a kid-friendly environment can make the experience a little more soothing for a child. Also, a child-friendly ER will use “ouchless” stitches that have a topical preparation to numb the cut and reduce pain.
  • Remain calm. For your child’s sake, stay composed. Your child will pick up on your facial expressions and your actions. Your primary role is to be a comforter. Use a soothing voice. Offer him a hug or blanket to keep warm. Use deep breathing to keep yourself relaxed. Above all, be your child’s advocate.
  • Pre-medicate. Most doctors would encourage you to give a pain reliever such as ibuprofen or ice before coming in to the office or ER. When your child is experiencing pain, she will be miserable during the appointment, so it’s helpful to relieve some of the discomfort prior to the visit. And, it’s important to note, neither will affect the level of care or treatment.

Going to the ER or doctor’s office usually isn’t a fun experience – for kids or adults. For many of us, the anxiety of what we expect to happen is probably worse than the experience or pain itself. Some of us may never outgrow our fear of doctors. With a little bit of reasoning and some mental preparation, we can help our children get through the appointment and move on to healing.

One size fits all doesn't work in emergency care, especially when it comes to kids. Learn more about our pediatric emergency care.

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