When a child is terrified of pediatricians, it’s hard to say whether child or parent suffers more from a routine checkup. Screaming, struggling, and desperate clinging—and the “How can you do this to me?” look in those tiny eyes—cut deep into the most stoic heart.
The first rule is to remember that, no matter how insignificant it seems from our perspective, small children rarely understand how the pain of the present relates to avoiding worse pain in the future. Especially if they feel just fine at the moment and have never known anyone who’s actually had measles. Stay gentle and empathetic; and if it comes to, “I’m sorry, but this is the way it’s going to be,” convey that message firmly but kindly. Being obviously impatient, applying physical force in anger, or ridiculing the child will only make him feel more abandoned and frightened.
The opposite mistake from “You’ll take it because we say so, and if you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about” is to think only of calming the child’s fears. Manifestations include scolding the doctor, crying along with the child, and assuring the child “It won’t hurt” when it likely will. (That last one not only increases the child’s future terror, it undermines trust in the parent.) Be there for your child throughout, but be strong for her as well. And compliment the child for whatever courage she shows—much more helpful than “you poor thing.”
Most young children have parents in the age range between the frequent checkups of childhood and those of the senior years—and it does seem unfair being the only one in the house who has to see the doctor “all the time.” If you’re an older parent or custodial grandparent (or have an older relative living with you), by all means keep the kids up to date on when you visit the doctor and why. If no adult in your household needs frequent medical checkups, still let the kids know about the ones you do have (dentists and flu shots are things no one of any age should neglect). And let your children see—or better yet, join—you practicing other health priorities that may not always seem comfortable or expedient: exercising, cooking your own meals, going to bed on time.
You don’t have to emphasize “making you feel better” to justify stopping for a special treat as part of your doctor-visits routine. Or make the trip itself an adventure: ride the bus downtown to the medical center, drive the scenic route, walk or take your bikes.
Finally, remember that “this too shall pass”—both dreaded individual checkups and the time before kids learn to accept the poking, prodding, and occasional foul taste or needle prick with mild grumbling. Following the hints above can speed the coming of that day.