Helping Your Child Overcome His or Her Anxieties

The first rule in helping a young child overcome anxieties like these is not to make fun of her or belittle her fears. That may make your child feel like she’s a terrible person for being afraid, and will probably make matters worse. A much better approach begins with your doing some homework before bringing a fearful child to a doctor’s or dentist’s office for an appointment.

Find out what will happen ahead of time so that you can prepare your child for the visit. When you talk about it, don’t just focus on procedures that may be painful, such as injections. Remember that if you’re calm when you describe what will happen, that will tell your child that she can be calm, too.

Also, never lie to your child. That’s very destructive to the trust that’s needed for a healthy parent-child relationship. If she’s going to receive a vaccination, don’t tell her that she won’t. If they’re going to need a blood sample, don’t tell her that it won’t hurt.

Here are some other things that may help calm a frightened child:

  • Ask your child what she expects will happen. That gives you an opportunity to give her correct information. Children may have many misconceptions about what goes on in doctors’ offices and hospitals. A psychologist colleague of mine shared a striking example with me. He was talking to a five-year-old boy whose father was about to undergo an operation. When the psychologist asked the child what he imagined would happen to his father, he replied, “It’s like being in a fight. They cut you with knives.” That explained a great deal of the child’s anxiety.

  • Remember that young children have concerns about things that adults wouldn’t give a second thought to. (Will my parents leave me there forever? Does the dentist’s office have a bathroom?) Children who have difficulty expressing themselves with words will often show their fears and misunderstandings if you role-play with them, and you play the patient.
  • Have a brief visit that’s simply fun. This is an especially good idea for children who are seeing the dentist for the first time, or who have a new doctor. Many medical and dental offices will do this for free if you ask, since it makes the real visit easier for everyone. For example, arrange with your dentist to bring your preschooler in for a two-minute visit consisting of a ride in the chair, a look at a hand-held mirror, and a gift of a new toothbrush. Similarly, a medical office may let a child the same age who’s a new patient meet one of the nurses, play with a tongue depressor, and walk away with a dinosaur sticker. (Getting a sticker may mean nothing to you, but it can work wonders for an adult-child relationship.)
  • Talk about the visit a few days afterward. This gives your child a chance to think about what happened. She may also feel freer to talk about her emotions after it’s all over.