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When Your Child Is Afraid of the Doctor

How to figure out what's really bothering your child at the doctor's office, plus how to help him become a model patient.
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Marcela Jones, an English professor in Washington, D.C., says her 3-year-old daughter, Amalia, starts screaming as soon as they step into a doctor's office. Her child's white coat-triggered misery started, Jones says, with her two-year checkup -- Amalia had her routine shots and then went upstairs to another office for a lead blood test. "We had to have three people holding her down," says Jones. "It was horrible." 

What's a parent to do? Jones knew she didn't want a struggle like that again, so she started talking to her daughter about why parents take their children to see doctors in the first place and what usually happens in the doctor's office. Because no matter the reason for the visit, says Karen Stephens, MS, an early childhood educator at Illinois State University and author of The Complete Parenting Exchange Library, letting children know what's coming is important. "Often a big part of the fear," she says, "is that children don't know what to expect."

Or sometimes children have the wrong idea about medical treatment. If they've seen television hospital shows, for example, they may associate doctors with trauma and major injuries.

How to Help a Child Who Is Afraid of the Doctor

To combat children's fears, parents should explain what will take place when they visit the doctor. Specific details help: The stethoscope the doctor will use to listen to a child's heart might feel cold, the tongue depressor that allows the doctor to see the throat may be rough.

Parents should also model the attitude they want their child to learn. "A lot of developmental tasks that children have to accomplish are scary," says Stephens. "But when children are brave enough to walk without hanging on to the coffee table, we usually cheer them on and say, 'You did it!'" Being able to get medical help, Stephens says, is another important life skill. "But if children sense a parent's nervousness, they'll interpret the visit as a bigger deal than it is."

Afterward? "I'm not big on rewards," Stephens says, "but I am a big fan of going to do something fun together. "It's all how you phrase it," she says. "Try, 'Let's go celebrate your bravery and cooperation.' Because, frankly, when I do something challenging, I like to celebrate."

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