“Going to the doctor” is frightening under any circumstances, but the idea of seeing a doctor for “crazy people” brings about it’s own special fears, both for parent and child. Your child may or may not express these fears, but don’t take their silence to mean that all is well. Positive and honest communication about their illness and what to expect during treatment are essential. The role you play in getting them prepared for their first doctors visit is crucial in setting the tone for treatment. Your child looks up to you and will take cues about how to react to the experience from you.
Talking to Your Child About Depression
Talk to your child about how he’s feeling. As you talk with him, be non-judgmental. Reassure him that while he may be thinking many bad things about himself, you love him and value him. If you have depression, let him know that you have the same illness. Explain to him on his level what it is that causes him to feel so sad. Depending upon your child’s educational level, you can both allow him to read on his own or read yourself and then explain to him the mechanics of depression.
Shame & Stigma
Even in adults, feelings of shame accompany the thought of being treated for a mental illness. There are feelings that we must be crazy or other people will think we are crazy. Children can be especially cruel; in particular if your child has already exhibited behaviors such as withdrawal or acting out, which have caused him to stand out from his peers. No one wants to be odd or different. Address these feelings with your child. Reassure him that he is not crazy. He has a chemical deficiency in his brain that makes him feel sad, or anxious, or have trouble concentrating in school and that this deficiency can be fixed. Let him know that he is not bad. He hasn’t done anything wrong that he is being punished for. Also, let him know that no one has to know that he has seen a doctor; but, if anyone should find out, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Many, many people have depression, including famous people.
The Visit Itself
Common fears among children visiting doctors are pain and the unknown. Children have very active imaginations. They may have also seen psychiatry portrayed in a negative way in movies. Giving them a rundown of what to expect will help allay these fears and prevent them from imagining the worst. If you haven’t done so already, read the following brochures from AACAP. Once you have an understanding of what to expect you can relay this information to your child in terms they can understand.
Getting Your Child Involved
Two ways of getting your child involved are making lists of symptoms and letting your child make a list of questions for the doctor. This process is helpful because not only are you getting together information that will be useful for the doctor, but also because your are teaching your child to recognize his own illness and how to take an active part in his own healthcare. This will give him a feeling of mastering his illness and will help him in controlling it should it turn out to be a chronic condition.
Choosing the Right Doctor
A doctor who is clinical or detached in manner or cannot establish good rapport with children will make your child even more apprehensive. If possible, obtain a recommendation of a good doctor from your family doctor, a school counselor, or friend. Choose a psychiatrist who specializes in treating children if possible. If you find that the psychiatrist you have chosen makes your child feel ill-at-ease or does not seem to understand your child’s needs, don’t be afraid to change doctors.
Once you make it through the initial evaluation and diagnosis, you will probably have many questions about treatments. In the next part of this series, we will discuss the safety of drug treatments for children and answer some of the frequently asked questions about psychotherapy.
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