01/11/2012 12:52 pm ET

Kid Hates Shots: How Do I Make Them Less Scary?

Dear Susan,

Every time I take my five year old to the pediatrician, she screams bloody murder when she has to get shots. Is there anything I can do that will make it less traumatic? She is terrified of needles.

Dr. Mom

Dear Dr. Mom,

Most children are afraid of shots; there's something inherently scary about having an injection. But there are a number of things that you can do to lessen your daughter's fears. Here are some tips:

Let her practice giving shots to her dolly with a play doctor kit. The more familiar she is with the rituals associated with the experience, the less it will frighten her. Help her reassure Dolly that the shot will be a prick that will be over quickly. Offer to help her distract Dolly with bubbles or a special song as you make sure Dolly looks away from her arm. Encourage her to comfort Dolly if she whimpers or cries, and then congratulate Dolly with your daughter when "the procedure" is finished. And, make sure you put on a special bandage.

Ask your pediatrician for a prescription for a numbing cream like EMLA, which you -- or your daughter -- apply to the injection site about an hour beforehand to numb the area. This will greatly diminish the sensation, making the shot less painful and therefore less traumatic. Your doctor may also suggest that you give her a children's acetaminophen beforehand, if he thinks it's appropriate.

Distract, distract, distract! Go to the bakery beforehand and let her pick out a delicious cookie that she can focus on. Put a special story or song on your iPod that she can listen to while the nurse administers the shot. Play "I Spy" with your daughter to get her looking for things that are round, or blue, or have red letters; it's best that she avoids looking at her arm.

Remind your daughter of "owies" she's survived in the past. Tell the nurse how brave your daughter was when she scraped both knees after falling off a scooter, or how she managed the pain after being stung by a bee. By helping her focus on other difficult experiences she's endured -- even bragging a bit about it to someone else as she overhears -- you'll remind her that she's stronger than she thinks.

Ask for a kid-friendly nurse. Anxious children can throw a less experienced nurse off-center, causing them to be harsh and impatient, which makes everything worse. Schedule your immunizations for a day when there is a nurse on staff who knows how to handle needle-phobic kids.

Help your daughter feel more in control. Put her in charge of applying the numbing cream. Have her pick out which fancy Bandaid to use. If she's interested, explain why the shots are beneficial; she may feel less powerless if she understands the science behind the medicine she's receiving.

The most important things you can do to help ease your daughter's fears is to be a kind and steady presence. Don't let her upset trigger your own. Stay calm, hold her gently, and offer a steady stream of reassuring words. When the ordeal is over, offer a big congratulatory hug, and consider a special treat -- for you both!

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.