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Tests and procedures - reducing anxiety and distress

There are many ways to help reduce your child's anxiety and distress during tests and procedures for cancer.

Key points to remember

  • throughout treatment, your child will have tests and procedures to help the healthcare team diagnose and care for your child
  • some of these tests will be quick and easy for your child, and some may produce anxiety and/or pain
  • you can help prepare your child by giving simple, accurate information in a calm, non-emotional way
  • talk to your child about coping methods that they can use on the day
  • avoid giving your child long explanations about the procedure while it is happening

Be there for your child

It can help your child if you can be there during tests and medical procedures. If you can't be there, think about asking another person who your child is comfortable with. Because each child's experience is different, it is important to talk with your healthcare team about the best way to support your child.

Before the procedure

Keep it simple

Prepare your child by giving simple, accurate information in a calm, non-emotional way.

Use language your child can understand and answer any of their questions. Listen to your child's concerns about the procedure - they may be different from your own.

How much information you decide to give your child will depend on your child's age and how well you think they will cope. For a young anxious child, talk about the procedure only a day or two beforehand so that you don't overwhelm them.

Discuss coping techniques

Talk to your child about coping methods that they can use on the day such as distraction and breathing techniques.

They can use these to help manage any discomfort or anxiety about the procedure. Practice these techniques together. Talk to your child about when and how to use these techniques.

Provide choices

Where possible, give your child a choice. For example, your child can choose which finger for a finger-prick.

They may also be able to choose a position such as lying down or sitting on your lap but check with the nurse or doctor first to see if this is possible. It is not helpful to offer your child a choice such as when to start a procedure.

During the procedure

Avoid giving your child long explanations about the procedure while it is happening.

Stay calm during the procedure. This will let you support your child as best you can. There are some techniques you can use to help during the procedure.

Maintain physical contact

Patting, rubbing and stroking can be very soothing for your child.


Encourage your child to focus on other things rather than on the procedure. Distraction could be blowing a windmill or party-blower, looking at a pop-up book or favourite book or counting objects around the room. It could also be telling a favourite story, recalling a happy event or watching a video or TV.


Imagery involves imagining events – particularly sights, smells, sounds and tastes – as if the events were really happening. Ask your child to choose a favourite place or activity and focus on helping your child imagine that experience using all their senses.


Telling your child to "Blow away the worry" can be very helpful before and during a procedure. Practise this with your child. It may help to imagine blowing out candles on a cake or letting air out of a tyre.

It's also a good idea to encourage your child to relax. For younger children, you can suggest they "Go all floppy".

For older children, teach them to breathe in comfortable feelings and breathe out tension. Encourage them to notice changes in their muscles and whole body.

Coping statements

It may help your child to use some coping statements before, during and after the procedure.

These statements can help your child to use their coping techniques and to praise themselves. Useful phrases include "I need to relax now", "Soon it will be finished" and "This is helping me get better."

What you say to your child during a procedure and how you say it can affect how your child copes. Try to avoid talking about the procedure while it is happening. Talk about something else like a past event or coach your child to use a coping technique.

Avoid statements such as "It'll be all right", "I'm sorry I have to do this", "I know it's hard", or "Stop being a baby".

After the procedure

Praise and rewards

Praise your child and mention any attempt at using a coping technique. Rewards can be very helpful but avoid bargaining with your child during a procedure such as saying "I'll buy you a PlayStation".

Reassure your child

If your child cries or is distressed because of pain, let your child know it is OK to feel upset. Keep using coping techniques even if they do not seem to be working at first.

Keep talking

Talk with your child and build on the parts that they found helpful. Talk to your child about how they are feeling about their illness and treatment. It is important to talk with your child and help them with any other worries they may have.

If you are concerned about your own or your child's level of distress, talk to a member of your healthcare team for help.

Pain video

You can watch a video that explains procedural pain management on the Paediatric Integrated Cancer Service.

Professional support

There are cancer centres for children and young people in New Zealand. The cancer centres can offer support in coping with medical procedures. They can support children diagnosed with cancer as well as their families. 

Play specialists and psychologists who specialise in child development work with children and families to help build upon their existing strengths and coping strategies.

Nurses and support staff can also help with coping strategies to support children who are having medical procedures. Staff can work with you to provide the support that your child needs.

Your healthcare team can give you information and practical suggestions to help your family adjust to hospital.

Click Donate to fund the ongoing development of the Circulating Tumor DNA project which will improve outcomes for those children already diagnosed with cancer.

Disclaimer - Content on this blog is for educational use only. Please consult your doctor or other health professional to make sure the information is right for your child.
Copyright - Please note that the information on this blog is copyright owned by The Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation. See copyright information at the Kids Health website.


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