My daughter is 3 1/2 and deathly afraid of any doctor and dentist. We actually have to hold her down at every appointment to accomplish what needs to be done. I have tried to talk to her prior to the appointment to let her know what they are going to do and what to expect. We give her plenty of time at each appointment to cooperate but we can only talk her into it for so long...they do have other patients to deal with. My husband has to go to every appointment because I cannot hold her for exams. I hate to do that to her and scare her even more, but at this point, she does not reason well and will not get checkups if we don't. What else can we do to make her understand they won't hurt her and she will be ok?
She has never had a traumatic incident, never was hospitalized or had any real reason to be afraid. I have been with her for every doctor appointment in her life so far and never let her go by herself. I don't know what started this fear but she has been like this since she was a baby. At her 9 month appointment she screamed because the doctor put the stethescope on her and then it was downhill at every appointment for every exam they did. Please help!!
From: Abby, Pittsburgh
Considering that fear of the doctor is one of the top 10 fears of childhood, I'm not surprised that parents raise it in this space every so often. (Click here for a previous discussion.)
I chatted about a young child's fears over the phone and via email with Dr. Ellen Hanson, director of developmental research at Children's Hospital in Boston. Here's an edited & condensed Q&A:
BFM: It breaks your heart to have to hold down your child like this.
EH: Absolutely. Unfortunately, this is not like some other things in life where you have a choice. You have to take your child to the doctor.
BFM: I remember once holding my son while he had blood drawn. I think it was harder for me than for him.
EH: I've had to do it as a parent, too; most of us have to at some point. My son - he was about 3 - had never had a problem at the doctor and then one day we went in and he all of a sudden flipped out.
BFM. ''Be brave, honey.'' Is that a good thing to say?
EH. Too esoteric. So is trying to reason with a child this age. Young kids do better with concrete information: ''It's going to be over fast.''
BFM. And if you have to hold your child?
EH. Do it. Just get it over with. Stay calm. Be honest. "It will hurt, but shots are really quick.'' Lots of hugs and kisses afterward. The good news is there does not seem to be any long-term trauma from this.
BFM. That is reassuring. What else?
EH. Don't tell her days in advance. Mention it briefly that morning. Don't go into a lot of detail. Answer questions truthfully and briefly.
BFM. ''Will I get a shot?''
EH. ''Yes. It will be over quickly. I'll hold you. I'll help you.'' Change the subject as quickly as you can. One way to do that without ignoring the issue is to talk about all the things she can bring. Bring a whole bagful of stuff! For instance:
Snacks, favorite toys, loveys. Your child can help you ''pack.'' The best snacks are often ones that need to be sucked. When you are sucking, it is impossible to cry hysterically. I am not in favor of a lot of sugar for kids, or in sugar as a regular reward, but these situations are infrequent.
BFM. Other ideas?
EH. When you are in the examining room, if the hysterics have not yet begun but your child is getting anxious, have the doctor do the exam on you, or on the child?s doll/stuffed animal. Make it into a game. Let the child be the doctor.
BFM. Playing doctor at home. It's why toy doctor sets were invented, to help master the fears.
EH. Read books. Watch videos. Make your own book about a doctor visit. That's a great tool for mastery at many ages.
Never make fun of, ridicule, threaten or punish a child. Threatening to leave or to take things away can often escalate hysterics and just plain make the child feel bad.
BFM. Do you ever recommend sedation?
EH. Only for a procedure.
BFM. So children outgrow this?
EH. For the typical child, it's a passing thing. It will not develop into a phobia. If doctor issues continue [for years], if they are extreme [compared to other children their age; a doctor will let you know that]; if your child has developmental disabilities; or if the fear becomes generalized [developing into other fears], talk to your pediatrician or to a psychologist.
I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
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