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The Doctor, the Dentist, the Anxiety, Oh My! Helping Your Child Find Peace in Predictably Scary Situations

From the backseat of the car, my daughter asked me to tell her a story. Since we were on the way to her annual well child exam, I wondered if she was seeking a virtual role play in which the heroine of my story would be on her way to the doctor, too. So, sure enough, Kittenpants (the heroine of most of our stories lately, name chosen by my child) was, indeed, about to get her checkup. As I continued, my child kept asking for more detail. My hunch had been correct. She very much wanted to know what she was about to get into, but safely first, through a story.
 
Even for me, as an adult, I have some doctor anxiety. However, I actually like going to the dentist. My theory is that, with a young child, relaxing in the dental chair is about the longest I ever have to “do nothing”. I digress; I know doctors and dentists, alike, cause anxiety for a lot of humans, especially the young ones who have fewer years of experience with them.
 
If your kiddo lacks enthusiasm when it’s doctor or dentist time, what’s a gentle parent to do? We all have to go to these appointments sometimes, right? Some of these ideas might help you and your child:
 
  1. Go to the doctor and dentist—yours, that is. And take him along to observe. Rather than having someone care for your child while you’re at your appointments, let him see you undergo many of the same processes he’ll encounter when it’s his turn. There’s a lot to be said for desensitization; the more you expose him to a situation, the less foreign, and less scary, it might be (particularly when there’s no threat to him). Did I take my daughter into surgery with me last summer? Heck no, of course not. But she comes with me to every physical, every sick visit, and every routine maintenance activity I schedule. The more she can get comfortable with the concept of doctors in general, the easier it is when it’s her turn. A couple of doctors have even offered to have her “help” with my checkups, to which she gladly agrees (only in kid-safe ways, such as using the stethoscope). Talk about removing the fear factor! To the extent that you can, eliminate your child’s fear of the unknown. Before her appointment, let her know what to expect there. Recall what she’s seen, and talk her through what she hasn’t.
  2. Find the right provider for your child. Look for a doctor or dentist who your kid seems to like and who shows respect for her, even during “non-negotiable” parts of the visit. Even very young kids have strong feelings about who they like and don’t. To the extent possible, follow their lead. If your child has an ear infection but won’t let Dr. Amazing look in her ears, see if said doctor will perform the exam while your child is in the safety of your arms. If that’s not feasible, stand next to her exam table while you touch her reassuringly. If your doctor’s approach is “my way or the highway,” it might not be the best fit. I don’t know about you, but if a person 4x my size approached me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable and my caretaker let him, I’d have a problem with that. The procedure might need to happen, but the provider’s approach and demeanor should be a peaceful and collaborative one. There are plenty of fish in the proverbial sea, and that applies to medical professionals, too. Find the best match for each of your children. This isn’t your doctor; it’s theirs.
  3. Validate your child’s feelings. Recently, a 9-year-old boy I know named Théo went to the dentist and needed a filling. He was scared of the novocaine shot. After working past it and successfully getting his cavity filled, the dentist chided him and asked if it was worth him having been afraid. Théo maturely responded, “I couldn’t have been brave without first having been scared. Courage without fear is merely indifference.” Wow, I couldn’t love his response more if it were baked in a cake! It’s absolutely okay to be scared; it’s a biologically normal and healthy response to many situations. Fear serves a purpose in keeping us safe. Does that mean you should say to your child, “Yes, you should be nervous! It’s so scary at the dentist!” No, absolutely not. What it does mean, however, is that your child needs to know you hear him without judgment, and without your trying to talk him out of his feelings. Try this: “I understand. I hear that you’re nervous. I’ll be there to support you.” Feeling understood can help relieve anxiety*.
  4. Let your child develop her own thoughts about the appointment. Pay attention to the messages that you inadvertently send about your doctor and dental visits. If all your child ever hears you say is how much you hate going, he’ll internalize that and save those feelings for when it’s his turn. Moreover, let your child decide how he feels about each part of the visit. The first time my child saw me give blood, she saw me look away (I can’t watch), but she got as close to my blood-giving arm as the phlebotomist would let her. She was fascinated. The next time she saw a needle, she stared right at it as her doctor gave her a shot. She didn’t cry. (Whaaaat? Whose child is this?) I was shocked, but relieved that I hadn’t projected my own needle-anxiety upon her. After the fact, she told me that it had hurt a bit, but my worries about how she’d handle it far exceeded the stress of the actual event.
  5. Play doctor. Dr. Hilarious, that is. If laughter is the best medicine and your child is still young enough, role play it out in the silliest ways you know how, while staying “true-ish” to real doctor-like scenarios. Her truck needs its blood pressure checked; her toy tomato has a fever. When my daughter was three, she kept coming to me to cure her “chronic case of the 3s,” during which she responded to every question and every part of my “medical” exam by yelling “THREE!” She thought it was hilarious, even when she was getting pretend shots that somehow made her “condition” worse.
  6. Educate neutrally. “Just the facts, ma’am.” For the record, I’d rather get a shot in the nose than be called “ma’am,” but the expression, like it or not, is a memorable reminder that it is what it is: a doctor visit. In the case of things like shots or other “painful” events, explain what will happen, but in neutral, textbook-like terms. You’re the provider of information; your child gets to process and judge the information in whatever ways work best for him. Before shots, I remind my child that “Sometimes they hurt temporarily, but then they feel better very soon. Sometimes, they don’t hurt at all. Either way, I’ll be with you for the entire visit.” Neutral. Confident. Peaceful. For little or big kids, but especially if your child is older, read age-appropriate books about doctors or types of medical things that interest them. Pick up a book (or watch a non-scary video) about some aspect of medicine that might interest her. Learn about it, and perhaps come up with a question of interest to save for the “real” doctor or dentist. Empower your child with age-appropriate information. Tell her you’re going to the appointment with enough time to prepare for it mentally. No surprises.
  7. Talk about life after the appointment. From an anxiety perspective, we can all get caught up in the fear of the upcoming visit. Remind your child, by having a specific after-the-visit plan, that life goes on, on the other side of the appointment. Have an “after” idea that’s not conditional or a bribe. Instead of, “If you do well at the doctor, we can go to the park,” try, “I have an idea–after the doctor visit today, let’s plan to go to the park. It’s fun to have something to look forward to later in the day.” Having something good to anticipate can help ground your child (and you, too).
 Most of all, let your child take refuge in the emotional safety that you can provide, before the appointment, during it, and after she survives it. Assure her that you’re right there with her, and will continue to be, just as you always are.
 

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