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Afraid of Doctors? Tips To Ease Medical Anxiety in Kids

Mom helps child afraid of doctors ease their anxiety

Plenty of adults have anxiety before seeing the doctor, so it’s natural that kids would get nervous too.

All kids have their own unique needs, but doctor anxiety tends to peak between 6 months and 4-years-old when children are developing and learning at a rapid pace. Signs of anxiety can include being sad, scared, extra clingy or regressive behavior like thumb sucking or bed wetting.

“It’s normal to have anxiety,” said Yale New Haven Health Child Life Supervisor Robert Wing. “Going to the doctor takes kids out of their normal routine and sometimes, if they are getting an immunization for example, there’s a negative experience associated with the visit.”

However, there are some things caregivers can do before and during an appointment to help ease anxiety. Wing offered these tips:

  1. Set expectations. Before an appointment, talk to kids about what is going to happen. Tell them who they are going to see, and how the doctor is there to help them.
  2. Role play. Preschoolers are particularly fond of dramatic play. Before an appointment, use a play doctors kit to show them how to listen to the heart or take their doll’s blood pressure. Then when it happens in the doctor’s office it’s old hat.
  3. Prepare for wait times. “The reality is, if you're sitting there watching the clock, time feels like it stops and kids don't have the same kind of impulse control, so they can get antsy,” said Wing. “Find ways to redirect them and give them something else to focus on.” Bring a favorite toy or comfort item for younger kids and toddlers. For older kids, a small game or electronic device can help pass the time.
  4. Teach kids to ask questions. “We always encourage kids to ask questions, it’s your body and you have a right to know what to expect. If they don’t feel comfortable asking the doctor or the nurse, they can ask their mom or dad to ask the doctor for them,” said Wing. “Giving open opportunities for kids to ask questions and learn is really important.”
  5. Offer support. Tell kids it’s normal to feel nervous, or OK to cry. Be empathetic and calm while talking to them about their feelings. Sometimes a child just needs a hand to hold.
  6. Provide choice when possible. Giving kids options can help empower them. Perhaps they can’t say no to a blood pressure reading, but maybe they can pick which arm to use for the screening.

Dealing with complex medical treatments

Anytime a child is facing a complex medical treatment or series of treatments, their entire family can feel stressed. Wing says kids can pick up on their parents’ mood, so caregivers should try to find ways to address their own anxiety.

One important way to do that is for parents to ask their own questions and be an active part in their child’s medical care. Understanding why certain treatments are important can help calm parents during a stressful situation.

Family members should also reach out to others for support. Parent groups and social workers are important figures that can assist families through a new diagnosis. Before any procedure, parents can ask if a Child Life specialist is available. They can help guide kids through everything from a blood draw to an MRI or surgery. Child Life specialists can use a variety of tools, toys or games and developmentally appropriate language to help kids process what’s going on around them.

Not every appointment will go smoothly, and that’s ok too, Wing says. “Sometimes you have to get through it and then it’s about recovery, realigning and saying, ‘I’m sorry, that was tough. Let’s go for a favorite treat.”

Learn more about Child Life Services.