6 Ways To Prepare Your Kids For Their Next Doctor's Appointment
Child Life Specialist has advice for pediatrician visit
As a kid, I can remember asking my mom before every single doctor’s appointment, “Am I going to get a shot?”
Now with three kids of my own, I often hear, “Am I going to have to get a shot?” My 6-year-old tells me weekly that she doesn’t have to get any more shots until she is 11. She heard nothing else at her well-check appointment except what was said about the shot schedule.
I am a mom to three beautiful girls ages 18 months to 6 years. I am no stranger to doctor’s appointments, shots, and all the fretting that comes with all of it. Heck, some weeks I feel like the office staff at the pediatrician’s office knows what’s going on in my life better than some of my closest friends.
I spend every car ride on the way to an appointment walking my kids through exactly what to expect from their appointments. I walk them through standing on the scale, to the room, to the doctor coming in and finally, when they ask me if they are going to get a shot, I tell them the WHOLE truth. I tell them how many, and where, and even how we are going to sit when it’s time. Are you thinking I’m the crazy mom now? Are you wondering why in the world I would give my kids so much detail at such young ages?
Not only am I a mom, but I’m also a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) at Cook Children’s Medical Center in the Emergency Department. My job is to prepare and support kids throughout their health care experience. Preparation is without a doubt the most important part of my job. On a regular basis, parents tell me that before we start an IV, give a shot of antibiotic, or suture a wound that they would rather we just did it and surprised their kiddo rather than tell them what is going to happen before it happens. Yet, every time I walk in a room, I say some version of this:
“Hi, my name is Ashley. I am a child life specialist, and my job is to make sure you know what’s going to happen before it happens. We don’t like surprises here at the hospital. So let me tell you what we are going to do next…”
And the whole room changes. Children immediately begin to engage with me in conversation.
Research over decades demonstrates preparation reduces stress and increases the child’s ability to cope with healthcare experiences. It is important to note that timing, the child’s age and developmental level, previous healthcare experience, type of procedure, the child’s learning style, and personality should all be considered when offering preparation. (Rollins, Bolig, & Mahan, 2005, p. 44).
My oldest needed to know months before her 4-year-old well-check that she was going to have shots, and she needed me to walk her through the experience over and over. She is an external processor, the first-born, and order is her love language. She even had to talk through her fears and shed a few tears before the visit…more than once.
Many of you may be thinking that this sounds like a lot of work. The intensity that can come with a child’s constant worries and fears can make you say, “Let’s just show up and get it over with!” Trust me when I say that I know that feeling well. You think they will get over it and recover, but the reality is, in those moments of “getting it done,” you may create a traumatic healthcare experience that will follow a child throughout their lifetime.
My youngest is a preemie, and we spent eight days in the NICU at Cook Children's. Every single time, since she was just under 1-years-old, that we walked into the doctor’s office whether it was for her or her sisters, she began to cry and suck her thumb. She is my only child that has had, what I would consider, traumatic healthcare experiences; however common belief is that she was too young for those experiences to affect her. I completely disagree. We walked into the dentist the other day for her sisters’ appointments, and she cried all the way down the hallway because it resembled the doctor’s office. It took her several minutes to feel safe enough to stop crying.
So, all of that to say, it matters. Your children need to have an opportunity to prepare their minds, process their emotions, and be a part of making a plan to help them cope. A few things to consider as you prepare your child for the doctor’s appointment:
1. Tell your child what is going to happen before it happens. Are they going to get shots? How many? Where on their body will they be administered? As children get older they begin to do finger pricks and take blood pressure. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t be afraid to make a phone call to your doctor’s office and ask questions so that you can give your child correct information.
2. Decide when the best time is to prepare your child. You know your child best. The most important thing to remember is to NOT surprise your child with a procedure. You can tell them on the way to the doctor’s appointment or begin the preparation months in advance. Let them know what is going to happen and why. “We get some shots to help us not get sick.”
3. Let your child process their fears and anxieties. Sometimes you can feel that allowing your child to express their fears may produce more fear. However, you will find that many of your child’s fears are not logical or they greatly misunderstand a piece of the process. Don’t be afraid to go here with your child. Take the time to validate fears or thoughts and correct any misunderstandings.
4. Keep your language simple and developmentally appropriate. Use words and phrases that they would understand. When talking about the blood pressure cuff, you can use words like “quick squeeze” or “tight hug.” When talking about the shot refer to it as “medicine,” and you can tell them that they will feel a “quick pinch” and then a sting, but that it’s doesn’t last for long. When talking about a strep test, you can tell kids “Say, ahh, and they are going to tickle the back of your throat really quickly.” It’s important for kids to know what is going to happen and how long it will last.
5. Make a plan. Will you sit next to your child or will they sit on their own? Practice taking deep breaths for any procedures. Decide what kind of distraction you will utilize. Some kids like to sing through a procedure or watch a show. Some kids need to have distraction for the visit and while they wait (i.e. coloring, books to read, etc.). Remember that you are your child’s coach. Encourage them when things are hard, comfort them when it is too much, and reward them for their efforts.
6. Use your resources. Daniel Tiger has a fabulous episode that talks about going to the doctor’s office. This has been watched over and over at my house. I have found Doc McStuffins to be incredibly helpful for children too. Many times children are more comfortable because they have already been exposed through these shows. There are countless books out there about going to the doctor or dentist. Utilize these resources and allow your children to become comfortable with the health care environment.
My girls love going to the dentist…for real. They LOVE it. I truly believe this is because of the environment our dentist office has created. They prepare them for everything, let them ask questions, and they always let them leave with a prize. Don’t be above a prize. My mother-in-law says that as adults we get paid for our hard work, why shouldn’t they get paid for theirs too. If your child is successful and gives their best, reward their efforts.
A quick note on pain: Children interpret a lot of touch as pain. They are most concerned with what is going to hurt, and they immediately feel out of control. Also what they see is what they believe. So if something appears painful, it is. Your preparation helps to identify what will actually hurt, identify how other things are going to feel, and help them realize that they can be in control by making a plan on how they will handle what they feel. (Kuttner, 1996, p. 77-79)
Going to the doctor doesn’t have to be a horrible, dreaded experience. It really can be just another part of life that we do on a regular basis. So the next time your child asks if they are going to get a shot at the doctor, answer them truthfully, let them ask questions, validate their feelings and then go get some ice cream!
Kuttner, L. (1996). A Child In Pain: How To Help, What To Do. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc.
About the Author
Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face.