July 02, 2015

Q: My toddler screams and cries at the sight of the building! I worry because when we are there she cries so much she makes herself sick. I try talking to her calmly and playing games with her to distract her. I have never threatened to take her to the doctor if she is bad or anything...HELP!

A: Dear Ashleynicolich:

Small children between the ages of 2 and 4 often have fears about doctors or dentists which seem out of proportion to the actual experiences that the child has had in the office. In fact, small children frequently develop profound terrors of something entirely harmless, such as an big inflatable plastic dummy on a car lot or a circus clown at a birthday party. Sometimes the parent can divine the cause of the child's fright--perhaps the doctor once gave your daughter an injection or alarmed her by placing a cold metal stethoscope on her back, but often the parent is unable to get to the bottom of the cause of the youngster's fears.

Possibly you can help your daughter by engaging her in conversation during a calm moment about "another child, who is going to the doctor's office" and see what your daughter might say. Children of 2 1/2 are full of magical thinking, so your daughter might say that the doctor is going to take out the child's eyes, or some equally fantastic horror. This can give you an opportunity to explain what the doctor is for, or to somehow add some of your own realism to your daughter's expectations.

I think it is great that you try to speak calmly with your daughter and play games to distract her when it is time for a visit to the doctor's office. This may be all you can do at the moment. Giving her a lollipop, an ice cream bar, or something similar before she gets all worked up, might help soften her reaction as well.

Elizabeth Berger MD

Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger