Many adults and children alike aren’t big fans of going to the doctor. Getting a shot or having to take icky medicine are definitely not fun! If you have a toddler who isn’t happy about that looming appointment, their anxiety can often show up at bedtime. It can mean more call backs, more stall tactics and more tears. But it doesn’t have to be that way! There are ways you can help your toddler work through all their emotions and still get to bed, and the doctor, without the struggle.
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Give your child a heads up
We often delay bad news but telling your child well in advance actually works better. When we don’t give a child much time to process their emotions, that is when big meltdowns can happen. The bigger the meltdown, the harder it is for you to control your emotions as well. So the more time your child has to process their emotions, the better. Try telling your child about the doctor appointment 3-4 days in advance, in a calm and encouraging manner. Let them know we aren’t going now, but we are in a few days. This gets the wheels turning in their head and they can express their feelings at different times through the next few days. This advance warning also lets them speak to you about their fears and ask you questions. Processing emotions at different times and in different forms is extremely helpful when dealing with something scary for children.
Listen to your child’s feelings
When they are verbalizing their fear or anxiety, there is no need to rush to rationalize or comfort. Just listen, be a calm and loving presence, and identify with them. They need to know it’s ok to be nervous and that mommy or daddy were also once afraid of going to the doctor. Children love hearing stories about when their parents faced a similar fear when they were children. It helps to connect and give the fear less power over them. It also tells them they are not alone, they are normal, and that their parents are not judging them. Once your child has expressed their feelings and you’ve identified with them, you can comfort and let them know you will be right there with them.
Have some fun by role playing – in reverse!
Play is a fantastic way to help your child work through their emotions. As a next step, try playing doctor with your child but have your child pretend to be the doctor, and you be the patient. They can pretend to give you a shot or some medicine. Act afraid of the needle, or run away from the medicine, instigating a chase around the house! Putting them in the more powerful role will help them work through their fear in a very productive way. Inciting laughter will help release any fear and tension they have towards the impending appointment. As an example, I had to take my daughter to get a Covid-19 test and she was very nervous. I told her the doctor is just going to tickle your nose with this cotton swab. I handed her the swab and said “ok doctor, I’m ready for my nose tickle” and closed my eyes tight. She said “ok here you go!” as I opened my eyes and pretended to be afraid, falling backwards and saying “no I don’t want a nose tickle!”. She laughed and fell on top of me and it ended in laughter and tickles.
Amp up your bedtime routine tactics
Incorporate roughousing as an activity just before your bedtime routine. For example, kneeling in the doorway and saying “I bet no one can knock me over!”, then letting them run and push you over. Research has shown that roughousing is a proven way to release tension and fear in children, as well as help them truly feel their bond with you. The tactile nature provides a sensory input that helps them feel more connected to you. Ensure you are putting them in a more powerful role than you (ie. knocking you over). This again helps them release tension and anxiety. If your child is acting out during the bedtime routine, set a limit on the behaviour. There may be tears but that’s actually a good thing! When they’re able to release emotions via crying, healing comes after. The more stress they’re able to release during the day and at bedtime, the easier they’ll fall asleep and stay asleep at night. Pro tip: don’t forget to move up bedtime as this will also help to ensure a smooth transition. You can read about how and why early bedtimes work here.
Managing the emotions ahead of time will dramatically help improve things at bedtime. And on the day of the appointment, don’t forget to keep role playing and create as many laughs as possible. Your child will truly benefit from it!