Sensory W.I.S.E. Solutions Podcast for Parents
How to prepare your neurodivergent child for a dentist/doctor visit
The first thing I gotta say about preparing your neurodivergent child for a dentist, doctor visit or any other appointment that invokes fear or anxiety in your child is…. Remember, even adults, neurotypical adults still DREAD shots, dentists, you name it.
I don’t have the answer to make your child countdown the days until they get their cavity filled or to get their flu shot at the doctor. I don’t even have the answer to make your child have a “tear-free” appointment. Why? Because I can’t even get that with my daughter.
But what I will offer you today in this episode, is a lot of tips to help make that day a little less stressful and make you feel like you’ve done everything you can to set your child up for success. That’s the best we can do, right?
So, here are my tips for preparing for professional visits like dentists or doctors that I also do for my own daughter. You’ve probably heard a lot of these tips before.
One other side note for you, I think an important thing to keep in mind is that for some kids, preparing them for the visit could very much trigger more anxiety as they anticipate the day. This is true for many kids, and you know your child best so I would keep that in mind. For some kids, one day of prep is enough, some kids are good being prepared the day of, some kids need a few weeks of practice and role play. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that surprising your child and not even telling them about the appointment is probably not the best route for sensory/anxious kids.
Tips to prepare for a doctor’s appointment
1️) Show photos and video of the office you’ll visit, including pictures of the Doctors or therapists your child will be seeing. Some offices these days even have social media accounts with a lot of pictures of their environment.
This will take away that fear of the “unknown” as your child can start to visualize what to expect. Remember, the unknown and unfamiliar is a major threat to kids with sensory processing disorder and anxiety. How many times have you looked up on google to see what the exact parking lot or streets look liked when you’re about to visit a new place?
2️) Talk through the sequence of procedures. Call the office you’ll be visiting and ask them what exact procedures they’ll be doing (and in what order) so you can share it with your child. Practice through play and role play with your child and any stuffed animals to act out exactly what will happen, including waiting in the waiting room. Here’s the important part: don’t sugar coat any of the painful procedures or things that will happen. I don’t think you need to completely scare them off and be like “You’re going to have the biggest pain ever when they put this needle in your arm”, but also don’t say “it’s not even going to hurt you’ll barely feel it”. I think being objective and saying “You’ll feel a sharp poke and it might hurt for 3 seconds” can help.
3️) If your child enjoys watching cartoons or doesn’t think they’re only for little kids, find the Daniel Tiger goes to the dentist episode and one where he goes for a flu shot (on YouTube) or find social stories (check out teacherspayteachers). There are several other youtube videos that also help prepare your child for the dentist and common appointments. Bonus tip: if you go to the dentist or doctor before your child does, ask if you can video yourself getting some of the procedures done so your child can see you going through it yourself.
Tips for the day of a doctor’s appointment
4️) Bring a lovey or other squeeze toy that will help comfort or soothe them when they feel nervous. Squeezing provides proprioceptive input, which is inherently calming to the nervous system. Whichever tool you decide to bring, add this to your role play and prep of the procedures/sequence of events when you practice it.
5) Heavy input: Before you go into the office or while they’re waiting in the waiting room, you could offer some heavy work opportunities. No they’re not going to run through the waiting room being a distraction, but you could do:
- Hand squeezes
- Have them sit on their hands in the chair
- Wall pushes (kind of awkward if there’s a ton of people there, you could also do this before going into the office)
- Chair push ups
If you’re going to a dentist visit, you could ask the dentist to keep the x-ray vest on your child during the procedures because the heavy weight can be calming and regulating for a child. If you have an extremely small child, you could just place it on their lap. If you’re not at a dentist visit, you can bring your own weighted lap pad.
6) Set them up for success on the day of: this is not the morning to push non-preferred foods, and it’s not the morning to have them wear those shoes they hate. Let the socks go if it bothers them. Try to schedule it at their “most regulated” time of day. Adding more sensory triggers may only set them off even more, so prepare them accordingly!
I hope those tips are somewhat helpful for you. But on the way out, I just want to make it clear to you that even with all the tips and knowing what to do, and doing exactly what you’re supposed to do, sometimes these visits are just stressful and scary and hard for all parties involved. You’re not a failure and your child isn’t a failure if they still cry or if it’s still hard for them.
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