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Our resident child life specialist Kelsey Cramer shares some tips and tricks to prepare your child for a doctor or hospital visit.

Whether routine or unexpected, doctor or hospital visits can cause fear and anxiety for kids and their caretakers. Here are three things I recommend to make the process a little easier:

  1. Honest and open communication
    Being honest with your child regarding medical experiences can be daunting, especially if you know that they will become upset or have a meltdown prior to getting in the car. Children who are prepared for the hospital and not lied to are more likely going to be able to understand what is happening and why.
  2. Give simple choices
    Choices can be as simple as, “do you want to sit by yourself or on my lap?” or “do you want to watch or look away?” Giving children (even young children) choices offers them an opportunity for autonomy, leading to a greater sense of control.
  3. Practice coping strategies early on
    When we do this, we actually are preparing the brain for when fear enters our world (fight or flight). For example, if you (as an adult) had a training course on what to do when a lion approaches you, you are more likely going to be able to take appropriate action. Here are some tried and true strategies:
  • Medical Play: get a doctor’s kit online and play doctor! Through play, you can actually witness, hands-on, what your child is feeling, thinking, and how they might respond when going to the doctor. Play also invites children to make choices and allows you to demonstrate some coping strategies/open up a conversation with them. Medical pay also offers opportunities for them to learn about various medical equipment (stethoscope, thermometer, etc.) and their jobs. Research has shown that normalizing these experiences leads to more positive outcomes.
  • Breathing: you can pretend to “smell the (child’s favorite food) and blow on it,” or “smell a flower, now blow it away,” or “blow out the candles.” Modeling breathing when you are feeling frustrated or nervous can also be a good teaching opportunity for children to learn options when they are feeling similar emotions.

Kelsey Cramer is a Los Angeles-area child life specialist and a Piper + Enza expert contributor.