How do you make a trip to the GP surgery or hospital with your child a success without having to pull out all the stops on bribes, treats, and general pleading?! Whether it’s to attend a routine appointment, an immunisation clinic, or for something more specialised - this is something many of us struggle to tackle at the best of times let alone when everything is still so very abnormal out there. So, grab a nice cup of coffee and have a read over my top tips for surviving medical appointments with your child.
Let me begin by saying that every child needs something different. Some need many days of preparation and others will do better with just being told on the day or on their way to the appointment. You know your child best, so pick out the bits that feel right for you and your family. Top tip number 1: Use simple, clear explanations Think through what you’re going to say before beginning a conversation with your child about going to the said appointment. Being clear in your own mind avoids giving mixed up messages and will help you to sound calm and confident. If you’re in a household with more that one caregiver, ensure that you are all clear and say the same thing.
Be sure to tell them when and where the appointment is, who is going with them, how long it might take, what will happen when you’re there and what you are going to do after the appointment. And most important of all, tell them why.
Many people are worried about sharing information about diseases and illnesses with children, as they are fearful that it will cause distress for their child. However, without an explanation of why we are asking them to go through an experience that might be painful, they may begin to question our trust. Children generally cope well when they have enough clear information. Top tip number 2: Try not to pass on any of your own fears Many adults have worries or fears about going to the doctors, the dentist or to a hospital (sometimes we’re not even sure why or where the fear come from!). If this is you, then it’s important you do all you can not to transfer your own feelings on to your child. The key here is to know how fearful you are, and know if you can contain your own feelings enough to be in the position to have to contain your child’s. If you feel that this is too difficult right now (and it’s ok if it is, you don’t have to pretend or be brave!) then it’s a good idea to seek out some help. Ask your partner l, or a friend, or relative to help you take your child to the appointment.
Top tip number 3: Read stories or play it out
As a play therapist, I always recommend playing! So let's get that doctor’s kit out and have a little practice. Allow them to take turns to be the doctor or nurse as well as the person getting the injections (or whatever the situation). Roleplay like this helps them to understand the verbal explanation you’ve given them. It also allows them to have a concrete experience of what might happen, which should help with reducing any anxiety or worry. In these current times, it might also be a good idea to practice wearing a face mask too, just so they get to see how it feels to wear a mask and see someone else wearing a mask. Reading or making up stories about their favourite tv character going to the doctors may also be useful. Using stories, similar to playing, provides opportunities for the child to process what is going on and also allows an opportunity for them to ask questions. Continue to promote playing and storytelling after going to an appointment (your child may do this instinctively). It helps to normalise the experience and offer a platform for discussion around the experience. Providing a narrative around an event is important simply because talking about something (sometimes over and over!) helps us to make sense of it. Top tip number 4: Decide what you might do after the appointment Having a plan about what you’re going to do after the appointment gives you both something to focus on. It also provides the child with some control over something (which is incredibly important to most children!). Ask them what might help them to feel better, e.g. hugs, chocolate, special story, ice cream from the shop on the way home, iPad in the car etc. (obviously within reason!) If they know this treat is coming It will give you something to focus on with them before and during the appointment and helps to help keep them grounded. And just so you feel ok about using this method, this is not a bribe! A bribe is only a bribe when you give the treat to the child BEFORE in the hope they will "be good". If you give the child the treat AFTER the event, it's a reward. Top tip number 5: All feelings are ok Let’s face it! Some medical procedures, like injections or having a doctor examine your sore throat, will hurt and it’s important will don’t lie about this. Saying things like “it won’t hurt you” “there’s nothing to worry out” “be brave for me” are all things that could be the beginning of creating unhealthy responses to events, and here’s why. If we are told by the person we trust most (our parents in this case) that an injection won’t hurt, we believe them, and then it hurts, we learn to mistrust this person. We also need to give our child permission that however they feel or react is ok. Let them know it’s ok if they cry or feel sad, or if they are excited, or if they feel nothing at all. If we prohibit our child from feeling or behaving in a particular way, they learn to mistrust what their body is telling them. Over time this can develop into the child mismatching their emotions and teaches them to bottle up feelings (future blog coming soon on emotional literacy).
Normalise all feelings, they don’t have to be brave, they can express that they are hurt. And we can help them through this time by telling them that the hurt or painful feelings will go away soon and that you will be there
with them the whole time to help look after them. This completes a process of feeling uncomfortable, seeking comfort and recovering. The more experiences like this a child has the more resilient they become. A little recap:
Consider how much preparation your child needs;
Use clear & simple language;
Use role play & stories;
Try not to pass on your fears;
Validate all feelings;
Decide what you’ll do afterwards & talk about this at the appointment; and
Talk about the experience afterwards.
I hope these top tips are useful and have given you some ideas for helping you and your child. Please do post in the comments with any other ideas you have, or if you’ve found these suggestions useful.