Going to the doctor is often stressful for you and your child. Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg shares tips for easing your child’s fears and also shares ways to fix common mistakes parents make when visiting the pediatrician. Here’s an excerpt from her book, “The Smart Parent's Guide.”
Prepping your child — and yourself — for a visit The first year or two of your child’s life will include regular wellness visits to the pediatrician to check on growth and development, get vaccinations, and just generally make sure everything is going along fine. But little ones have steel-trap memories, so if your toddler equates going to the doctor only with getting shots, you may find yourself with some “splaining” to do. (“So that’s why the nurse often gives the shots,” you’re thinking. “Now I get it.”) Kids need to understand that docs do a lot more than give shots — tell them that we help kids stay healthy and get well. Whether they are going in for a routine exam or because they are injured or sick, you can help quell their fears.
Explain why you’re going. If it’s for a “well-child visit,” tell your children the doctor wants to make sure they are growing and that healthy kids go to the doctor to be sure they stay that way. They need to know that going to the doctor is not a punishment for any misbehavior. Some kids actually believe this. Really. Not only do some parents not dispel this wrong belief, but I’ve known a few to even use it as a threat. (“If you don’t stop throwing the kitten into the bathtub, I’m going to take you to get a shot!”) Naturally, this makes me and other pediatricians crazy! I want kids to think of my office as the place with the cool bears on the wall, not where they go to be punished for putting chewing gum in their sibling’s hair.
If your child is ill, explain that the “doctor will help you feel better.” Occasionally younger kids feel guilty about being sick, so assure them that the illness isn’t caused by anything they did. Say something like “Sometimes children get sick, and we’re lucky to have doctors who can find out why and help you get well.”
It’s okay to admit to your child that you don’t know what’s wrong but that you’ll all work together with the doctor to find and fix the problem.
If your child has an embarrassing problem, like bedwetting or head lice, make sure you explain that it’s not their fault and that it happens to many children. Kids often feel incredibly embarrassed or guilty about things like this, so discuss it in reassuring language and then put on your best “no biggie” attitude.
Tell your child what to expect. Basically, play doctor with them at home with a toy medical kit. Use a doll or stuffed animal to show how the doctor will look in the mouth, eyes, and ears, and listen to the heart with a stethoscope. Explain that the doctor may listen to the tummy, tap the knees, look at the feet, and glance at their “private parts” to make sure everything’s healthy. Assure your child that you will be there during the entire exam. Don’t forget to bring a favorite doll or stuffed animal along. Like me, your pediatrician may even give Mr. Ted E. Bear an exam, too. No charge.
Speaking of private parts, most kids are taught that no one should touch them there, so explain that sometimes their bodies need to be examined everywhere, including there, to keep them well. Please also explain the differences between appropriate and inappropriate touching, even by a doctor, nurse, mom, dad, or grandparent, not to mention a friend or stranger. Your pediatrician can give you some pointers on how to go about this if you’re not sure.
Let your child know if a procedure is going to hurt a little or be embarrassing, but be a little vague on the details so that you don’t create unneeded fears.
Watch your language. If you tell your five-year-old that the doctor will need to “take blood,” explain that it will only be a teaspoon or two. Some kids worry that all their blood will be taken! (I’m not kidding.)
Ten tips for the perfect office visit
“You need to bring her in.” I know you probably don’t want to hear those words, but in many cases, I simply can’t answer questions without seeing a child. I’ll do what I can to save parents a trip to my office, and many cases can be handled over the phone. But not all. Every child is different, and there are nuances and symptoms that I must physically see in order to diagnose and treat the child. During a sick visit — or any visit for any reason, for that matter — use these ten tips to be a smart communicator and to help your child get quicker treatment.
1. Don’t be shy. Bring a list of questions, starting with the most important ones. Don’t be shy about checking your list or taking notes. I’ll be impressed that you came prepared. (Just wait to fire away until I have the stethoscope out of my ears.)
2. Sick ... how long? Please write down what the symptoms are and when each one started. The pattern can make it easier to diagnose problems.
3. Paint me a picture. If your child is taking any medications, bring those along. That includes vitamins, herbals, and over-the-counter remedies.
4. Doc, have you seen that study on the Web? It’s great when you come in with information you found on the Internet, in a magazine, or elsewhere. Hey, docs love it when you are well-read and actively involved in your child’s care. But it’s hard for us to evaluate every health tidbit on, say, the Discovery Channel. If you want us to review some bit of info, e-mail it, fax it, or drop it off in advance, so that we have time to check it out before your office visit. At the same time, give pediatricians a little credit for two things: medical school and years of experience. I see a lot of kids every day, and I may have had experiences that the writer of the USA Today article you’re panicked about does not.
5. Attention, please. Be focused during the visit. Try to leave other children at home with a sitter. Please turn your cell phone off, too. You want our attention and we want yours.
6. Promptness pays. Arrive on time or even early. We don’t want to keep anyone waiting, but if half our patients arrive late, well, you can see why we might run late too.
7. Huh? I don’t get it. If you don’t understand something, please ask us to explain it again or in simpler language. We try not to get into doctor-speak, but it happens. Rein us in.
8. A sketch, perhaps? Would a drawing help to explain a problem or procedure? Sometimes kids and parents can relate better to a picture that shows why an ankle hurts, for example, or a stomach doesn’t feel right.
9. Prefer parents. If at all possible, a parent — not a nanny or a sitter — should accompany kids on doctor visits. With working parents, I know that’s sometimes tough, but sitters and nannies don’t always get the information straight. Also, I may have questions they can’t answer. (Another reason why it’s preferable to find a pediatrician with evening and/or Saturday hours.) If it’s not possible for a parent to come, I will call Mom or Dad before the visit to get the child’s history and afterward to give a parent any treatment instructions.
10. Can you tell me again what you said? Don’t forget to follow up. If you get home and think, “What was that tip about using the inhaler?” call or e-mail to be sure. It doesn’t hurt to ask for written explanations or instructions before leaving your doctor’s office, either. That way, you’ll have all this information in writing before you’re out the door. Also, call about test results. No news is not necessarily good news.
Excerpted from “The Smart Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents: Expert Answers to the Questions Parents Ask Most” by Jennifer Trachtenberg with Ron Geraci and Eileen Norris. Copyright © 2010 by The Joint Commission Resources. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.