“Preparation is the key to success.” This month, parenting educator and Piper+ Enza contributor Giselle Baumet discusses just how important it is to prepare children for medical appointments, how to go about it, and how it can support their health in the long term.
I didn’t know I should prepare my daughter for her first dentist appointment, which turned out horribly.
But before I dive into how it went so badly, I want to discuss why it wasn’t even on my radar to prepare her for the appointment.
Looking at the data, I’m not alone. Many of us are unaware that we should prepare children for medical appointments in advance.
A recent C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital national poll on Children’s Health found that many parents do not discuss medical appointments with their children, leaving them unprepared for the experience.
And the lack of preparation can lead to anxiety, confusion, and decreased trust in healthcare providers, which I experienced. And these negative experiences may impact a child’s long-term relationship with healthcare, potentially leading to avoidance or non-adherence to medical advice later in life.
Why parents do not always prepare children for medical appointments
So, with this kind of data, why don’t so many parents know that we should prepare our children for their doctor appointments?
Several factors contribute to the communication gap between parents and children regarding medical advocacy and experiences:
Lack of awareness of the importance of preparation: Many parents may need to recognize the importance of discussing medical appointments and advocating for their child’s needs in the healthcare setting.
The assumption that pediatricians will handle all aspects of communication: Some parents may believe that it is the pediatrician’s responsibility to explain everything to the child, underestimating their own role in facilitating communication.
Fear of overwhelming or scaring the child: Parents might worry that discussing medical appointments will cause their child unnecessary stress or anxiety.
Time constraints and busy schedules: Let’s face it, we live busy lives. And many parents need help finding the time for in-depth conversations about healthcare and doctor visits.
In the above scenarios, I lacked awareness about how critical preparation was, and believed the doctor was responsible for any sort of preparation.
And so, I booked her first dentist appointment. She was about three years old, and as it turned out, she had a cavity. So, the doctor recommended we do the filling at this appointment, and I agreed.
The rest of what happened felt very uncomfortable to me, but as I had been raised not to question medical professionals, I went along with it, too intimidated to stop the process.
I was told that I needed to leave the room and that they would need to hold her down for the cavity filling. She felt distraught, cried, and was confused.
As a parent, you can probably imagine my guilt as I later put myself in her position and imagined how horrible this experience was for her. From then on, she refused to go to dentist appointments.
After that incident, I researched what I could’ve done better and how to move forward from this experience.
I found a dentist who practiced gently, was patient-centered, and encouraged parents to stay with their children during the entire appointment. We still visit him today, and recommend him to other parents, as he is a dentist who will not do a procedure if it means holding down a child.
The first experience taught me the importance of preparing myself and my child for what to expect, and for advocating for my child when things didn’t feel right. However, had I known sooner, I would have avoided the traumatic experience for my child in the first place.
Why parents should prepare children for medical appointments
So, why should we equip ourselves with this knowledge before ever booking our child’s first doctor appointment?
The benefits of preparing a child for a doctor’s appointment (or dentist appointment) are many, including:
Improves communication between your child and the doctor: When children learn to advocate for themselves, they can more effectively communicate their needs, concerns, and symptoms to healthcare providers.
Helps children understand medical procedures and diagnoses: Encouraging children to ask questions and engage in discussions about their health can lead to a better understanding of their medical conditions and treatments.
Increases children’s comfort and trust in the healthcare system: Empowered children are more likely to feel comfortable in the medical setting and trust healthcare providers, which can positively impact their long-term relationship with healthcare.
Gives children lifelong skills in self-advocacy and autonomy: Teaching children to advocate for themselves in healthcare settings can contribute to developing self-advocacy abilities and autonomy, essential life skills that will benefit them in various aspects of their lives.
Now that we know the benefits, how do you confidently implement this form of preparation and empowerment with your children, vs. scaring them?
How parents can prepare children for medical appointments
Normalize the conversation by starting early: Discuss healthcare topics from a young age to help normalize the subject and make your child more comfortable with medical appointments.
Role play doctor visits and discuss possible scenarios: Practicing doctor visits through role playing and pretend play can help children understand what to expect and allow them to practice asking questions and expressing concerns. More on this here.
Encourage children to ask questions and express concerns: Teaching children that their questions and concerns are valid and essential can empower them to communicate more effectively with healthcare providers. Reading our recent article, Teaching Children to Challenge the Status Quo: The Importance of Questioning Authority, is a good starting point on why children need to question authority.
Teach children about their bodies, health, and medical terminology: Educating children about their bodies and health can help demystify medical appointments and empower them to make informed decisions about their healthcare. It becomes a standard part of their understanding instead of a mystery or taboo.
Visit our free downloads page for even more ways to prepare your child for doctor appointments.
A hard lesson learned as a parent
In hindsight, had I known about the importance of preparing my daughter for her first dentist appointment, I would’ve done these things differently:
1) Ask the dentist in advance if they require or encourage parents to leave the appointment room for any procedures. And if so, I would’ve found a dentist that does not.
2) Ask the dentist if they hold children down for procedures, and again, if they do, I would choose another one.
3) Role play with my daughter so that she understands what happens at a dentist appointment and facilitate for her to ask questions.
4) Equipped myself with the knowledge I needed to advocate for my child at a moment that no longer aligned with my comfort level and her medical care.
The experience led me to teach other parents to prepare to advocate for themselves and their children. My hope for you is to learn the importance of preparing children for medical appointments via education, and not through an uncomfortable experience.
I didn’t know how crucial it was to prepare my daughter for her first dentist appointment, which resulted in a traumatic experience.
Many parents, like me, must learn the importance of preparing their children for medical appointments. However, factors such as lack of awareness, assuming pediatricians will handle all communication, fear of scaring the child, and busy schedules contribute to this communication gap.
As a parent, we must understand that preparing a child for a doctor appointment has numerous benefits, including improved communication, a better understanding of medical procedures, increased comfort and trust in the healthcare system, and development of self advocacy and autonomy.
To help your child feel confident and empowered, start discussing healthcare topics early, role play doctor visits, encourage them to ask questions and express concerns, and teach them about their bodies and health.
In hindsight, I would have made different choices and better prepared my daughter for her first dentist appointment, emphasizing the importance of medical advocacy for my child and myself.
If you’re a parent who has a similar story, please remember that you did the best you could with the information you had. And now that we know better, we do better.
Giselle Baumet is a Certified Life Coach, positive parenting educator, herbalist, aromatherapist, hypnotherapist, mental health educator, and more. She is also a Piper + Enza expert contributor. Learn more about her work at gisellebaumet.com.