How to Prepare Your Child for a Doctor’s Appointment, According to Experts

Going to the doctor can be a scary thing for kids of all ages, especially if they’ve had a less than stellar experience already. Between the shots; the unfamiliar instruments; and the poking and prodding into ears, noses, and throats—it’s no wonder many kids don’t exactly look forward to the experience.

As parents, we can take some of the scariness out of the equation with just a little bit of upfront preparation and conversation with our little ones.

We connected with experts ranging from family therapists and child psychologists to dentists and pediatric optometrists to learn how to set our kids and ourselves up for a successful trip to the doctor.

Four basic principles emerged across all expert advice. Read on to learn what you can do to help your little one feel ready for their appointment.

 

1. Talk About It in Advance

… but not too far in advance. You should be transparent with your child ahead of time, but exactly what that looks like will vary depending on the child’s age, according to Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and mom of two, who founded Practice San Francisco, a wellness center that helps kids of all ages manage stress and anxiety.

For preschool-aged kids and younger, Kaiser recommended having a preview conversation with them the morning of the appointment or the night before. For older kids, she suggested bringing it up during family time on a Sunday, for example, when you’re talking about what everyone has going on in the week ahead.

 

As parents, we can take some of the scariness out of the equation with just a little bit of upfront preparation and conversation with our little ones.

 

Of course, you know your child best, so take into account your child’s temperament and whether they have a tendency to worry more than others when you’re deciding how far in advance to give a heads up. If you know you have a worrier, Kaiser suggested finding a happy medium between the week of and the day of the appointment.

“Kids like predictability and consistency and generally don’t like [to be] surprised in a way that’s not positive, so it’s always good idea to give kids a heads up ahead of time so they know what to expect,” Kaiser said.

And what about babies? Should you have a preparation “conversation” with them? While you don’t have to, experts agree that it also can’t hurt. Personally, I like to start doing this when my kids are still babies so that I can get some practice in before they’re old enough to fully understand or ask questions.

 

2. Stick to the Facts

What should a preview conversation look like? You should share facts about what’s going to happen in a calm and optimistic manner. “Provide specific details of what your child will see and do at the doctor’s office to help them orient themselves when they get there,” said Raffi Bilek, family therapist at the Baltimore Therapy Center. He suggested getting as specific as letting them know that you’ll sit in a waiting room until your name is called and describing what the room will look like: “Having a clear sense of what to expect will help children stay calm.”

 

You should share facts about what’s going to happen in a calm and optimistic manner. ‘Provide specific details of what your child will see and do at the doctor’s office to help them orient themselves when they get there,’ said Raffi Bilek, family therapist at the Baltimore Therapy Center.

 

For first-time or non-routine visits, such as your kiddo’s first time to the dentist or eye doctor, you may want to take it a step further. Optometrist Megan Lott of Bellevue Specialty Eye Care recommended that parents take a tour of the office with their child before their appointment or show their little one pictures of the clinic, doctor, nurses, and staff from the website.

 

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Since a visit to the eye doctor or dentist can be anxiety-inducing even for adults who know what to expect, it’s not a bad idea to show your kiddo a kid-friendly video, TV show, or book about what happens at those appointments. Daniel Tiger has episodes that give kids a framework about what to expect for many of these situations.

Metaphors can also help with having the preview conversation, suggested Dr. Julie Morrison who is a psychologist and owner of HPA/LiveWell. “Kids know that parents take their cars to get an oil change or a car inspection; going to the doctor for a check-up is the same thing. We go to the doctor not necessarily because something is wrong but to make sure everything keeps going right,” she said.

What if they’re getting shots or going to experience some other level of discomfort? As the parent, you’ll have to make a judgment call on this one. You know your child best, so tailor the information you’re providing to them so that it will be as beneficial as possible.

 

What if they’re getting shots or going to experience some other level of discomfort? As the parent, you’ll have to make a judgment call on this one. You know your child best, so tailor the information you’re providing to them so that it will be as beneficial as possible.

 

Personally, I find it most helpful to share this information with my 3-year-old on the way to the doctor’s office as I’m going over everything else that will happen. I stick to a basic script: “You’re going to see the doctor, and she’s going to take your temperature under your arm, and use her stethoscope to listen to your heart and your lungs; she might look in your ears and eyes and mouth, and you’re going to get a shot. It will hurt like a pinch for a few seconds, and then it will be over.”

When my son had to get swabbed for strep throat three times this winter, the nurses consistently commented on how he handled it better than most of their older kids. When I mentioned this to one of the experts I spoke with, she attributed it to the fact that he knew what to expect and felt more in control of the situation, as he wasn’t surprised or caught off-guard.

If you do have a worrier, the preview conversation is even more important to have and also to send the message that while they may have some fear, you’re confident that they can do it.

 

3. Validate Their Worries

Let’s say your kiddo is worried, either beforehand or when you’re at the doctor. Experts agreed that validating and recognizing their concerns is key to helping them calm down and manage the situation.

“Some kids fear the pain, while others fear the sight of blood flow, or their mother’s panicked reaction. Allow your child to talk out loud with you about her worries. Saying it out loud dissipates the fear and relaxes your child, as well as gives her a feeling that she has a parent who understands her emotionally,” said Dr. Fran Walfish, family and relationship psychotherapist.

 

Let’s say your kiddo is worried, either beforehand or when you’re at the doctor. Experts agreed that validating and recognizing their concerns is key to helping them calm down and manage the situation.

 

Depending on your little one’s age, you could work with them to problem-solve solutions that would help make it easier for them. Even kids as young as three can voice ideas about what might make them more comfortable. Ask them, “Would it be better if I held your hand? Do you want to sit on my lap?” Maybe there is a favorite blanket or stuffed animal they want to bring. Kids often get creative if you give them a chance to provide their own input.

Another pro tip is to flag to the doctor when she enters the room that your kiddo is feeling anxious. The key is to do it in a way that makes your child feel like they are a part of the conversation. Depending on your child’s comfort level, you can encourage them to tell the doctor their concerns and ask the doctor for advice, or you can bring it up in a way that encourages the doctor to address your child directly, rather than speaking adult-to-adult.

 

 

4. Project Confidence

While you want to validate your child’s concerns, you also want to remember that kids look to their parents as models for how they should feel about and manage a situation. One of the most important things we can do as parents is to project to our children that we have confidence in their ability to cope, Kaiser said. Show them that you understand this experience may be unpleasant for them, but you have complete confidence that they can manage it.

 

While you want to validate your child’s concerns, you also want to remember that kids look to their parents as models for how they should feel about and manage a situation … Show them that you understand this experience may be unpleasant for them, but you have complete confidence that they can manage it.

 

“It’s really easy to buy into your kid’s worry about the situation or get amped up yourself as a parent because you can predict that your kid is going to worry. As parents, we need to project that we have confidence in their ability to cope, and we see the situation as no big deal, but we understand and empathize with their concern,” Kaiser said.

Remember that kids who tend to worry more will need more reassuring. “Try not to get sucked into the trap of providing excessive reassurance,” Kaiser said. “That in and of itself can send the message that this is more worrisome than you’re projecting.”

The best way to handle it? Remain calm and focus on the bigger picture–that sometimes we have to do things that make us nervous or anxious, but we can get through them. And in the case of going to the doctor, we sometimes have to experience temporary discomfort because, ultimately, it is better for our health and bodies in the long run.

 

Read More: Is Your Child Having Tonsil or Ear Tube Surgery? Read This First

 

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