Providing simple choices during a stressful experience can help a child regain a sense of control. Your child doesn’t have a choice in whether to get a vaccination. However, they may be able to choose which leg it is given in or if they’d like a band-aid with stars or hearts on it.
Healthcare experiences can cause stress for adults and children alike. As parents, we know our child needs to go to the doctor for well checks, vaccinations, and sick visits and we know that these experiences can be quite stressful. There are lots of things you can do to help your child cope with the fear and uncertainty that may come with a visit to the doctor.
Children trust their parents—share accurate and honest information with them. We all want to shield our children from pain. Make sure in softening the experience for your child that you do not make misleading statements. Getting an injection will hurt so it’s important not to promise that it won’t hurt.
Young children will need to be given information a short time before the appointment. Some preschoolers can handle knowing a few days ahead, others who worry might do better with only knowing a day ahead of time. Letting your child know ahead of time offers them time to think about the experience, ask questions, or reenact a doctor’s visit with their teddy bear. Allowing for these experiences will help your child approach the visit with confidence.
Just the Facts
Give them concrete, specific information that focuses on how they will experience the visit—what they will see, smell, hear, feel, etc. Explain things to your child in terms of the sensations they will experience. For example, checking blood pressure might be explained as “this will give your arm a tight squeeze to check how your heart moves blood around your body. Your job is to hold that arm very still.”
Keep it Simple
Use language your young child can understand. What we say may not be what a child hears.
When we say:
Take your temperature
You will need a shot today
Where are you taking it and will I have any left?
Why am I getting shot? Are they mad at me?
Say This Instead…
Measure your temperature to see how warm your body is.
An injection is a way to give medicine with a tiny, small needle.
Providing simple choices during a stressful experience can help a child regain a sense of control. Your child doesn’t have a choice in whether to get a vaccination. However, they may be able to choose which leg it is given in or if they’d like a band-aid with stars or hearts on it. Providing choices within an experience that threatens a sense of independence helps children feel strong and capable.
Prepare yourself for the doctor’s visit. Be ready with your child’s favorite comfort item or a toy for distraction. Tell the staff how you would like to support your child. For children who are particularly frightened, they might respond to better to examinations and procedures when safely held in your lap. Check out Positions for Comfort for more information.
Play provides children a chance to work through challenging experiences. Offer medical play before and after a doctor’s visit. When your child takes care of their doll or teddy bear they will gain a sense of control over the experience. Pay attention to the play—if there is something that your child has misunderstood or is afraid of they will likely play it out.
Take a deep breath! You can help your child fly through healthcare experiences.
Cindy Shepard, M.Ed. is an Early Childhood Special Educator and Child Life Specialist. Cindy graduated from the University of Vermont with a B.S. in Early Childhood Development and from James Madison University with a M.Ed. in Early Childhood Special Education. She has worked with young children and their families in school and hospital settings with a focus on social-emotional learning. She has facilitated social-emotional learning workshops for preschool teachers through Bank Street College of Education. She has two amazing daughters that are getting closer to leaving the nest. She finds great joy in helping children and their families and caregivers learn to fly together.