Helping your child overcome fears of visiting the doctor during COVID-19

By Dr. Katelyn Anderson, a CHOC pediatric psychologist

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some children and adults have felt fearful of visiting the doctor or seeking emergent medical care at a hospital. A study by the Commonwealth Institute showed reductions up to 60%, depending on the region of the country, in visits to hospitals and outpatient care.

For children, attending doctors’ appointments and visiting hospitals may have caused anxiety and uncertainty before COVID-19. Now, a stressful situation like the pandemic can magnify those pre-existing fears and make seeking medical care more challenging for families. If your child is struggling with anxiety related to visiting the doctor or coming to the hospital, here are some tips on how you can support them and ease their worries.

Validate their feelings

  • Encourage your child to share any worries or fears they might have and let those fears guide the conversation. For example, you could start the conversation with, “It sounds like you’re worried about going to the doctor. I know that can seem scary. Tell me more about your fears.”
  • Sometimes younger children and teens do not recognize when they are scared. Help by supporting them in developing language and body descriptions for their feelings. For example, “You said your heart is beating faster. When my hearts beating faster, I usually am felling nervous. I wonder if you are feeling nervous right now?”
  • Let your child know you care about their feelings.

Explain why going to the doctor or hospital is important

  • When a medical appointment or hospital stay is needed, explain why it is important. Use language your child can understand. You could say something like, “You remember Dr. Smith, right? She and her helpers are going to help you feel better and the best way to do that is to go to the hospital.”
  • How you share information is as important as what you share. Practice sharing information in a calm and matter-of-fact way to help your child feel safe and assured. You might say, “Seeing your doctor for this check up is important to help you stay healthy.”

Check the facts

  • When we worry, our minds often go to the worst-case scenarios or become overly negative.
  • Children pick up on information they hear in the news, from friends and on social media. Help them debunk misinformation about COVID-19 and take the time to share realistic ways hospitals are helping to reduce risk and minimize the spread of the virus.
  • For example, CHOC has implemented a variety of extra safety measures to keep kids and families safe including:
    • Health screenings before entering the hospital
    • Requiring everyone wear a mask
    • Social distancing
    • Additional cleaning measures
    • Screening patients for COVID-19 who are admitted to the hospital

Focus on what they can control 

  • When children feel nervous, they may dwell on aspects of the hospital visit that are out of their control. For example, the inability to have both parents with them due to a limited visitor policy during COVID-19.
  • Instead of dwelling on circumstances that are out of their control, focusing on what they can control will help children to think more logically and rationally.
  • Help kids to develop a semblance of control over their treatment and hospital stay. For example, you might ask them to help pack their bag for the hospital stay or decide which arm they want to use for a blood pressure check. Small choices can really help children feel in control.
  • For older kids and teens, encourage them to ask their doctors questions and participate in their care. You can even help them write the questions down before the visit.

Teach coping skills

  • Teach children they can control their breathing to calm down when they feel scared.
  • Encourage them to slowly count to four as they breathe in and again slowly count to four as they breathe out. Here’s a set of videos that teach deep breathing and other coping techniques.
  • Bring headphones for your kids to listen to calming music. There are many free apps with calm music, such as Calm, Dreamy Kid, or Headspace.
  • Give your child something to look forward to after the hospital visit. For example, “After we leave the hospital, we are going to have a family movie night.”
  • Model and practice using coping skills with your child before you leave for the appointment, e.g., doing calm breathing in the morning together.
  • Distraction can also be helpful. You can have a new toy, game or book ready for your child to enjoy while in the hospital or doctor’s office. You can also bring a favorite game or book to engage in or read.