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Tips to Get Children to Take Their Medicine

Some kids need to take medicine daily. Others have to take it when they are not feeling well. What can you do with a child who is resistant to taking medicine?

Be firm, positive and emphatic

“One of the biggest things is the way that we approach (giving medicine to kids) as parents,” says Adrienne Harmel, pediatric nurse practitioner at Urbana Pediatrics. “So much in parenting is an exercise in self-awareness (and) thinking about how you approach things.”


She notes parents and caregivers should approach medicine with a positive attitude. “(Children) feed off of our energy,” she says, noting that the calmer the parent is, the calmer the child will be. “If I start the conversation with, ‘I know you are going to hate it, but we have to take this medicine,’ it is not going to go well. (Instead try) ‘We went to the doctor and they gave us a medicine that is going to help us feel better. Isn’t that great that we have medicine that helps us stay healthy?’ Framing it that way, I think, helps,” Harmel says.

With children who are more resistant, The Pediatric Center of Frederick’s Dr. Paul Feinberg says that parents should be firm but empathic when getting their children to take their medicine. “I think parents should not be afraid to validate a child’s feelings because many kids are very anxious about taking medication. It is perfectly OK to say, ‘I know this is hard for you’ or ‘I know you are frightened,’” he says. “They shouldn’t necessarily try to discount that the child is having a particular emotion such as fear or anger.”

Think about how you administer medication

Generally, the best way to give young children medicine is through an oral syringe while they are sitting up. “You want to just squeeze a little bit at a time out of the syringe, and you want to angle the syringe toward the side of the cheek as opposed to straight in the back of the mouth because then they will gag,” Harmel says.

For children who are old enough to drink from a cup or ingest chewable medication, one of the best tactics that Harmel tells parents to employ is chasing the medicine with something such as juice or ice cream. Feinberg said sometimes giving kids something cold such as an ice pop helps to numb the mouth a bit from tasting the medicine.

Depending on the medication, parents may mix it with a child’s favorite food. “I’ve had a lot of parents mix medicine and chocolate syrup,” Harmel says. “Some (medicine) you can crush, or if it is a capsule, you can open it and sprinkle it in food. Mixing it in food is generally the best thing.”

Doctors can only prescribe medicine, but parents may want to check with pharmacies about potentially flavoring medicine. For children preschool age and older, Feinberg notes that kids should be given the opportunity to choose which flavor they want to take. This choice gives them a sense
of control.

Offer reassurance but be mindful of rewards

Bribery can also work, but medical professionals discourage parents from using food as a reward. “I try to make things experiential as opposed to food or a toy,” Harmel says. “It has to be something the child is going to be interested in.”

Feinberg notes that the reward doesn’t have to be a complicated activity. “It can be something that lasts a short period of time,” he says.

Pediatricians can also play a role in getting children to take their medicine. If children bring a doll or stuffed animal to an appointment, Harmel will often take the toy’s temperature and listen to the toy’s heartbeat first and tell her patients that it’s their turn. She will also encourage the children to have their toys take medicine in a role-play game.

“A pediatrician can talk to the child and be another voice of authority that children might respond to more than parents in terms of taking the medication,” Feinberg says. “A lot of kids will respond to the pediatrician saying this is something you have to do, whereas they won’t for the parents.”

For older children, Harmel says that parents may ask their children whether they want to do certain activities again, such as dancing or playing soccer. If they say yes, then parents can tell them they need to take their medicine so that they can do what they want to do.

“I try to help them feel a sense of power and autonomy in helping themselves to get better, and taking their medicine is one of the most important things,” she says. “Kids love autonomy, and (by) making them feel important and feel like they are involved in the process, you will often get better outcomes when they feel like they are a part of the choice and when they have some power.”

About Gina Gallucci-White