Helping your child through mildly painful medical procedures
It can be upsetting when your child has to undergo a painful procedure such as stitching or a blood test but a few things you can do will really help to make their experience more positive.
We never do anything that hurts more than a little and always do what we can to make it as painless as possible. Learning to cope with minor pain is an important part of growing up, however distressing it may be to us as parents; and the doctor is just one of those places where painful things occasionally happen. Many responses to medical treatment are learned from parents so if you are brave and show no fear, then your child will learn to do the same.
Golden Rule: Make sure YOU know what is involved and what the doctor expects of you before anything is done. Be sure you are happy that the procedure is necessary and that you are fully on-board with having it done. A confident, assured and informed parent means a much less stressful procedure for everyone. Ask questions and make sure you are happy with the answers before you agree to anything.
Older children vary in their responses. Some will be remarkably cool about things, some will take a macabre interest and others will freak out. Most children over the age of 10 can be reasoned with and should be able to understand the need for the procedure however so some explanation is important. You may need to be firm and it is certainly unwise to accept argument, but in the end even though they may be frightened, most children will understand the concept of short term pain for long term gain.
- Do not lie to your child - if it will hurt then they need to know but make sure you don't exaggerate. Honesty is always the best policy.
- It is probably best not to admit to being afraid (such as of needles) yourself.
- Be firm - It is not in your child's interest to refuse the procedure so make it very clear that they have no choice and must obey.
- Do not negotiate. This is not something they have a choice in.
- Once they agree to the procedure, but not before, offer a reward such as ice-cream or an outing after the event.
- Try not to bribe children to agree as agreement bought with bribes seldom lasts long enough.
- Do not offer a worse alternative - they know you are bluffing and it gets called almost every time!
- Afterwards, if they were brave, tell them so and make a fuss of them if they would appreciate it. If not, do not be critical. Better to say nothing.
Not admitting to fears is a strange suggestion in some respects but to a child there is a world of difference between "I don't like having this done either" and "I'm scared of needles too". The first acknowledges the fear and distress but implies you are willing to have the procedure done. The second authorises irrational fear. Sure, it will hurt, but only a little and not enough to be concerned about. Try really hard not to pass your own unhelpful fears onto your children - they are learned from parents, not doctors after all and telling your child you are afraid is a good way to make sure they will be too.
Younger children can be much harder to deal with, though the same basic rules apply - especially those about being firm and not negotiating!
The most important thing to remember is that younger children take their lead from you. If you are firm and calm, they will generally tolerate procedures remarkably well. If you show you are upset or panic, they too will be upset and whatever they have to undergo will be far more distressing.
For younger children:
- Stay calm.
- Stay quiet.
- If you need to hold your child, do so firmly but gently.
- Do not attempt to soothe your child during the procedure.
- Tell your child how good they were afterwards, even if they were very difficult.
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that children in distress should not be soothed, but trying to do so always makes the situation worse. This is possibly because children associate parental soothing efforts with painful events, but may be simply that a quiet parent who is still or perhaps gently stroking the child gives the idea that all is well and there is nothing to fear. Certainly it helps a lot of children and soothing during a procedure never makes a distressed child calmer. Oddly, firmly used words like "keep still and it will be over sooner" do seem to help. It is just the attempt to make things better that does the damage.
If you have to hold your child still, be like a bungy cord - the harder they wriggle the firmer you hold, but as soon as they stop wriggling, reduce the pressure - this helps to reassure them that there is nothing to fear but still keeps them in place.
Similarly, telling them they were good if they screamed the house down is not what you might expect as advice, but actually it works. You are telling your child that they were good to have the procedure and that you are pleased with them for going through with it, not re-inforcing the bad behaviour. Even if they had to be held firmly to have things done, if you tell them they were good, they are getting the best reward a child can have - your praise. They will not be happy about having the same thing done in the future, but if you praise them enough, they will associate it with a huge psychological reward and will be much more likely to accept treatment next time.
Whatever you do, never chastise your child for making a fuss - they could not help being upset and there is nothing to gain from making it worse. You can tell them to be still and to be quiet if you need to during the procedure, but once it is over with, you should be all praise and smiles.
If your child is making an unreasoanble scene, it is quite alright to tell them to desist just as you would under any other circumstances. Afterwards, though, you should still praise them just as much as if they had behaved perfectly.
Try hard to get it over with quickly. Time to think about it almost never helps though in this case some judgement is required as a very small proportion of children will benefit from a little time to rationalise things. Try to resist the temptation to be the first to have a vaccination for instance - younger children will not be helped by seeing you stuck with a needle as they are unable to rationalise your calm demeanour. Instead, they just get more scared of the procedure and it makes things much worse. Why tell your child they are going to see the doctor to get a shot? Just turn up and sure it's a nasty surprise, but weren't they brave...
Last updated: 30/05/2015
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