Once, I was sitting in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office with my son as a mom walked in with her little girl who was sobbing uncontrollably. “I don’t want to come here! I don’t want to see the doctor!” she screamed. The mom finally got her calmed down and said to the receptionist at the window, “She spent a lot of time in the hospital last year and freaks out every time we need to see a doctor now.” Edythe Park, MD, FAAP a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates in Ocala says that this type of occurrence is rather common. According to Dr. Park, there are three main reasons that children have anxiety leading up to an appointment that keeps them from having an A+ doctor visit.
Dr. Park says that expectations play a huge role in how we perceive things. Many times children get anxious because they aren’t sure what to expect at a doctor visit. They often imagine something much worse than what is actually going to happen.
“Children pick up if their parents are anxious, and their fear can feed off of that,” Dr. Park explains. “If parents are very anxious that there is something seriously wrong with their child, a child may want to avoid going to the doctor for fear that something bad will happen to them if they go and it’s confirmed that they’re really sick.”
According to parent polls, the biggest fear for the majority of young children is needles. “Some parents will attempt to get a child to behave by saying that they will have the doctor give them a shot if they misbehave,” Dr. Park points out. “Even when done jokingly, this can lead to negative associations.” This attitude can lead to children thinking that the doctor’s office is a scary place that you go for punishment rather than a place to go to keep you healthy.
So, how can you help your child leading up to a visit?
Dr. Park suggests discussing in detail what a typical doctor’s visit will include to help your child manage their expectations and their anxiety. She says that it is best to outline the entire visit, including all the steps like getting height and weight checked, possibly having to urinate in a cup and what tools the doctor uses.
Next, Dr. Park says that it is very important to be honest if your child is getting a vaccine and to prepare them ahead of time. “It’s important to be honest that it may hurt, but emphasize that it will be over quickly and that we need vaccines to keep us healthy,” says Dr. Park. “This helps instill trust that you are telling your child the truth about the doctor visit.”
Lastly, when kids are sick, it’s natural to be nervous, but it’s important to manage your anxiety in an appropriate way. “Try not to discuss your fears in front of your child,” says Dr. Park, “as it may cause them to become even more scared that they are seriously ill.” If you have concerns or questions that might not be appropriate to ask in front of your child, ask to speak to the doctor separately. “Remember that the majority of us are parents, as well,” Dr. Park says. “Sometimes the reminder that the doctor is somebody’s mom or dad can help make them seem less scary.”
A final thought
Dr. Park reminds us that it is very important to keep bringing your child to their well checkup every year even if they aren’t due for vaccines. “When our kids get older we tend to forget or think it’s not important,” says Dr. Park. “We screen for many subtle things like hypertension, kidney disease, and diabetes, that don’t always present with symptoms.” Additionally, annual visits help establish a positive relationship with a child and create pleasant associations rather than negative ones around being sick and getting shots.
Going to the doctor’s office might not be a walk in the park every time. When it goes well, remember to give your little one some reassurance of how well they behaved and then maybe take them out for a little treat!