Helping the Medicine Go Down

Our two-year-old has a medical condition which requires him to take medicine orally twice a day. The fuss he kicks up makes us dread the whole procedure. We seem to have worked ourselves into a pattern of upset which we can’t break out of. Any suggestions?

It may help you be less upset if you recognize your child’s behavior is normal. Nobody likes putting anything in their mouth that tastes bad – it’s nature’s way of protecting us from eating and drinking poisonous substances. So you’re going against what is natural in requiring him to take the medicine. And your child isn’t yet able to grasp the concept that something that’s bad in the short run can be good for him in the long run. It’s also normal for a two-year-old to resist any form of coercion, so of course if you’re forcing him to take the medicine he’ll resist you. My kids at this age used to resist diaper changes, putting on and taking off clothing, being fed, being told not to touch things, going to bed, and anything else which involved an adult deciding what happened to their bodies. Two is the age where the child first begins to want control of his own body, and this desire is normal and healthy. So don’t label your child as “bad” or “uncooperative.”

Now, what should you do? First of all, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Taking this literally, perhaps you can disguise the medicine by putting it in something strong-tasting which your child actually likes. If that’s not possible, apply the same principle symbolically. Reward your child for taking the medicine with something he likes, preferably something like yummy frozen yogurt which will take the bad taste out of his mouth.

You can strengthen this process by setting an example. Get another bottle of something which appears to be medicine. Have someone feed it to a role model (Mommy or Daddy or Big Sister), while the “patient” makes a face and says that she or he doesn’t like the taste but know it’s good for them. Reward them with the yummy dessert, and make sure they express how much they like it. Give your son his medicine after the role model has had his or her medicine and reward.

If your child says that he doesn’t like the taste of the medicine, empathize with his feelings. Say that you wouldn’t like the taste either, and you really wish you didn’t have to give him the medicine. Then give a simple explanation of why he has to take it, and promise him the reward. Your son may still go on making a fuss. While it’s happening, ignore as much of it as possible. Don’t get into an argument with your child. Just do whatever you have to do to get the medicine into him. If necessary make a game of it. For example you may have the spoon be an airplane and fly it into his mouth. If you have to force the medicine in, do it, but without yelling or spanking. Then as soon as he’s swallowed the medicine praise him for swallowing it, and give him the reward, making no mention of the fuss that he made.

You may try to change your child’s behavior step by step, using the older role model to demonstrate each stage. For the first few times the “patient” may kick up a fuss just like the child did, but end up swallowing the medicine and being rewarded and praised, clearly enjoying the reward. Then she or he may move to just saying “I don’t like the taste of it but it’s good for me so I’ll cooperate.” Give the reward again. Finally the role model may just take it, and get the reward. Your son will move through these stages more slowly than the role model. Be patient, and keep on giving the reward. Discontinue the reward only when your son is taking the medicine regularly without a fuss, and then still give it some of the time, as rewarding a behavior intermittently establishes it better than rewarding it all the time.

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