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Healthy Tips

Is Your Child Afraid of the Doc?

5 Tips to Prepare for Medical Care

Loud beeps. Masked faces. Needles. Visiting a physician’s office or the hospital can be scary. Northwestern Medicine Child Life Specialist Ginger Manzella shares tips for navigating health care with your child.

1. Be honest.

“If you’re not honest with your children, you can lose their trust, and they may develop a bigger fear of their caregivers,” says Manzella.

You don’t have to go into detail, but you do have to prepare your child for what they will experience. Use honest, soft, age-appropriate language to explain procedures. Start by describing the noninvasive procedures first, and let your child lead the conversation by asking them questions. This will allow you to gauge how they feel so that you can better support them. It’s always OK to ask, “How do you feel?”

Instead of saying: “They are going to stick a needle into your arm to give you an IV for your medication.”

Try: “Did you know your hand can drink? We have a really cool straw that can go into your arm so that your arm can drink your medicine!”

Instead of saying: “They are going to take your blood pressure with a cuff that will constrict your arm.”

Try: “We’re going to put a cuff on your arm that hugs it really tight. Let’s see how big your muscles are!”

2. Remain calm.

“Children carefully watch their guardians during medical visits to see how they are reacting,” says Manzella. “If you are relaxed, your child will be more relaxed.”

Here are healthy ways for coping with stress.

It’s also helpful to match your child’s energy. If your child is somber, be calm and encouraging. If your child is playful and energetic, offer the same playful energy. They will notice if you meet their playfulness with nervousness and will become anxious themselves.

3. Advocate for your child’s needs.

“Let your caregivers know if your child has specific needs,” says Manzella. “Chances are, caregivers will be able to accommodate these requests if you just ask.”

For some children, waiting in an exam room may induce anxiety. If your child seems anxious in an exam room, ask if you can wait in the larger waiting room where there is more space. If your child has a favorite toy, ask if they can take it with them during a procedure.

While a child may have to sit still for certain procedures, there is often flexibility regarding where, how, with what and with whom.

4. Play when possible.

“Play helps children express and process their feelings and experiences,” says Manzella. “Distraction can be a powerful tool when facing discomfort.”

Find moments for play, or create games during or before procedures, if appropriate. For example, if a child needs an MRI, you can make a game out of practicing holding still — it’s like freeze tag!

5. Offer your child choices.

Give your child choices to help them feel like they’re in control.

“Choices can be simple,” says Manzella. “But, you should offer them whenever possible, as they provide great comfort. Just be careful not to give a choice when there isn’t one.”

Here are some choices you may offer your child:

  • What special food would you like to eat?
  • What toys do you want to bring with?
  • Who would you like to go with you?

Your child will look to you for guidance during medical visits. The best way to help them prepare for uncertainty is by being prepared yourself.