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U of G professor offers tips on how parents can prepare kids for COVID testing

Education, preparation and having a coping plan are important for creating a good experience
20201016 Meghan McMurtry AD
Meghan McMurtry. Supplied photo.

Taking a child to get tested for COVID-19 can be a difficult experience, but one U of G professor has some tips to share on how to prepare for before, during and after the appointment.

Meghan McMurtry, an associate professor at the clinical psychology program, has studied decades of research on preparing children for medical tests and procedures, like needles. 

She said these tips can be helpful for families with young children, teenagers and even families with children who have autism.

“It will depend on the unique nature of the child, but these are recommended strategies for children with autism as well.” said McMurtry, “It would depend a little bit on the child, but these strategies, in general, will be helpful.”

Two things McMurtry stressed to do when getting a child tested for COVID is to communicate with them on what is going to happen, and have a strategy in place for every step of the process, especially for the moments where the child will struggle. Ignoring the appointment, or avoiding talking about it, will make it scary experience in the child's mind.

"Fear makes things worse. It makes the pain worse, and it makes coping in the moment worse." said McMurtry.

“Sometimes we think that when we tell them information that it will make it worse for them, but actually, realistic information that they can understand helps them prepare. ” 

She recommends parents explain to their children what they can expect and how it will feel in a story-like way. Using neutral terms to describe the sensation of the test, and sharing different experiences other children have had can also reduce fear.

Another way to help children prepare for the appointment, McMurtry said giving them a job to do can help them channel any nervous energy into doing that task.

“Kids really like having a job to do. The younger they are, the more simple the job is.” she said, "It may just be, 'You'll need to sit still,' but older kids can play a more active role in planning."

Once arriving at the clinic for the test, having something to distract children with can help them wait for the appointment to begin. 

“If you're waiting for an hour, what are you going to be doing? Because waiting for one hour isn't going to be pleasant.” said McMurtry.

Distraction is another tactic McMurtry suggests parents also use during the test. Interactive distractions, like TV shows, music or video games the child enjoys, can help make the appointment go by quicker.

“We can also ahead of time, come up with little coping statements they can make, like, 'I am Superman!' that they can say when they're afraid.” she said. 

McMurtry also said parents can try doing some deep breathing with their kids, which can help relax the body. If the child still has difficulties during the test, she suggests parents have their kids close their eyes and count with them.

For some families with young children, parents can try having the child sit in their lap with their back to the adult’s chest, or sitting on their lap sideways. Both positions allow the parent to gently, but firmly hug their child during the procedure. This technique is called 'comfort positioning.'

“It's not really physically restraining, it's more of a gentle, but firm, hug." McMurtry explains, "It makes them feel safe and stops them from wriggling as much. It may help to wrap your child in a blanket, that could be tried."

She adds that this strategy isn't as effective for teenagers, but parents can let older kids decide if they want to be comforted.

"Teenagers can be good at letting their parents know if they want or not want that."

If you’re taking more than one child for testing, or parents are also getting tested, McMurtry suggests letting the person who is more likely to tolerate the procedure better to go first. This way, they model expected behaviour that children can follow.

“You want the first person to get tested to be someone who models coping with the procedure.” said McMurtry, "It could be siblings, or it could be a parent."

After the appointment is over, it is important for parents to talk to their children about how the appointment went. Focusing on the positive aspects can influence how your child remembers the event if they need to go get tested in the future.

"What did they do well? Did they do a great job watching their video? Did they count well? Did they take good, deep breaths?" said McMurtry, "How we talk about it and how we remember it is important."

McMurtry adds if the appointment went really well, parents could also film their child’s reaction. 

“If you can capture that on video, like on your phone, you can use it to help prepare them for the next time." she said.

“There's no one more convincing for your child than themselves when they see it afterwards."

Finally, one more thing that McMurtry mentioned is to let kids know that it's only a test for COVID, not a diagnosis.

"It's important to let the child know just because they're getting the test, doesn't mean that they've got COVID." said McMurtry, "People will be in touch with them about the results."

Besides all these tips, there are additional online resources out there for parents to help explain the process to children, including videos. Some videos can be found here.