Does your child get nervous or upset when you announce you’ll be going to the doctor’s office? Some kids dread doctor visits because they are scared of getting a shot. But that isn’t the only reason why a child could be upset about an upcoming appointment.
Why are some kids afraid of doctors?
Kids may be fearful about the unknown or what is going to happen at the doctor’s office. Other children might be nervous about why they are going to the doctor and may incorrectly think they are sick or something is “wrong” with them.
For children with a chronic medical illness who need more frequent workups which may include blood draws and other uncomfortable procedures, the increased frequency of appointments in which something painful and scary is happening can also result in increased anxiety.
Signs of anxious feelings
Children who experience unease over medical visits don’t always talk about it, particularly younger children since they aren’t yet able to express their feelings using words.
Some clues or signs your child may be anxious include acting out, increase in tantrums, tearfulness, or an increase in noncompliance or oppositional behaviors. Toddlers may be more clingy or have difficulty separating from caregivers during the appointment.
Other children may experience physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, nausea or butterflies in their stomach.
Talk about feelings
If your child seems anxious about a doctor’s appointment, take time to discuss their emotions:
- Normalize and validate your child’s feelings. Honestly, no one really likes getting shots or going to the doctor. It’s okay to say things like: “I can tell you are worried and nervous about going to the doctor or getting a shot, and honestly, I don’t like getting shots either. But I know you can be brave and we’ll get through it together.” or, “Going to the doctor is not my favorite thing, but it’s something we need to do in order to stay healthy and strong. Let’s come up with a plan to help you feel better.” Be mindful of your own anxiety or fears.
- Talk about what might happen. Be specific. Kids may forget what happened at their last doctor’s appointment. Often, the anticipation of the visit is worse than the reality. Tell them what is likely to happen: “First we’ll check in and probably have to wait a little bit, then they will measure how tall you are and how much you weigh. You and I will probably have to answer some questions together. The doctor will listen to your heart with a stethoscope, and look in your ears, eyes, nose and throat.” You can even create a visual schedule or checklist to use at the visit for younger children.
- Be honest. If you know your child will be getting a shot, tell them that. If you’re unsure, tell them that. Avoid overpromising. For example, don’t tell your child they won’t be getting a shot if there’s a chance they might.
- Empower your child. Say things like, “I know you can be really brave, and we can get through this together.”
What steps can I take to reduce anxious feelings?
Planning ahead may reduce unease at medical visits. Try these ideas:
- See the same doctor. Having appointments with the same provider, when possible, can be comforting.
- Talk with your child. Ask them how they are feeling and what they are most worried about. It can be helpful to brainstorm something exciting or positive for your child to tell the doctor about, such as a school experience, special occasion, fun weekend plans or a recent birthday present. Sharing something they think is fun or exciting may help them relax.
- Practice at home. If aspects of the appointment are nerve-wracking, walk through the steps ahead of time. Younger kids can practice with stuffed animals or dolls. You can even practice the steps of getting a shot at home (without using a real needle). For example, you can practice rolling their sleeves up, sitting still and breathing, cleaning their arm, giving the arm a little pinch or grab, and then a pretend shot (using your finger).
- Use coping tools. Deep-breathing techniques or relaxation exercises may help calm your child’s body and give them something to focus on. Having “spaghetti arms” (loose and moveable arms like spaghetti noodles) should help shots hurt a little less. Bringing bubbles to an appointment can provide a distraction and help them practice breathing out slowly and gently.
- Give your child some control. Do they want the shot in their right or left arm? Do they want to hold your hand or give you a hug? Do they want to watch a favorite video or listen to music? These little things can help them feel like they have more control over what is going to happen. You may consider seeing if the vaccine can happen first, rather than at the end of the visit. This way it is over and done with rather than your child having to think about it during the entire visit.
- Give lots of positive attention and offer rewards. Praise your child after each successful step. You could even give a sticker after each successful step. It’s okay to give a special prize or reward at the end of the visit too, such as a special treat, extra screen time or doing a favorite activity. It’s important you give the reward or prize after the appointment.
When to Seek professional help
Some kids may have needle phobia or more significant anxiety. These children may benefit from therapy. If you are concerned, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a specialist. Signs to look for include:
- Worrying about doctor’s visits or shots months or weeks before the appointment.
- Inability to receive necessary vaccinations due to anxiety. This may include being unable to discuss getting shots or seeing needles, or other reminders or cues of vaccinations.
- Fear of dying, talking about death or being sick.
- Anxiety that affects daily functioning or participation in age-appropriate activities.
Many children feel nervous about going to the doctor, especially if they know a shot or unpleasant test is coming. But you can support your child by talking to them about their anxious feelings and helping them go to their medical appointments even when they’re fearful.