Editor’s Note: Moira Szilagyi is a pediatrician and president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
As a pediatrician, mother and grandmother, I know that kids generally do not look forward to getting shots, no matter how important vaccines are for their health. With the Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon for children ages 5-11, millions of parents may be contemplating a conversation with their child about getting immunized.
Children have already heard a lot about this vaccine. And they probably have questions. Unlike most other vaccines we routinely recommend for children and adolescents, the Covid-19 vaccine has dominated the news, social media, and discussions that may be happening around the dinner table.
My best advice is to meet your children where they are. This is true for any topic, but it is an especially great technique when talking with your children about their health. Don’t hesitate to give accurate answers to their questions.
Avoid blanket directives like, “Because you have to have your shot.” Your child may fill in the gaps with fearful thoughts, so it’s better to give more complete explanations, and to talk with your child about why vaccines are important in a calm, simple and non-alarming way.
Here is some more advice:
Counter the misinformation they may have heard
Remember that it’s possible your child has been exposed to alarmist and false narratives about the Covid-19 vaccine and other immunizations. You can counteract that with facts about how people are better protected from very serious illness and hospital stays when they are vaccinated. You can mention the teams of scientists and researchers who have worked on these vaccines and tested them in many people to ensure that millions of us now can be safely protected.
Talk about how incredible it is that we have a vaccine that will teach their immune system to recognize this virus. If your child is curious about how vaccines work, the American Academy of Pediatrics has some animated videos that explain the Covid-19 vaccine.
Let them know they are helping others
Children often are eager to help others. I recently gave a Covid-19 vaccine to a teen girl who hates needles but who came in and pushed up her sleeve because she wanted to help protect her mom, who has an autoimmune disease.
Children have an immense capacity for compassion and selflessness, so explaining that being vaccinated against Covid-19 will help them protect their grandparents, friends and others might help them understand the importance of their vaccination.
Remind them, too, that when more people are vaccinated, more of their favorite routines can happen again.
Set the right tone
If it’s the pain of the shot itself that is worrying your child, we have a few strategies to help. Hopefully you are able to get your children’s vaccine at the office of the pediatrician or other primary health care provider – someone the children know and trust who has a good rapport with them.
Saying, “We’re going to see Dr. Anna today and she’s going to help keep you healthy. She probably will have some fun stickers and Band-Aids for you,” can set the right tone for your visit.
Let your children wear a favorite cloth mask for the appointment and tell them their stuffed friend can wear a fun mask, as well. Bringing a favorite stuffed animal, toy, or other item also can help with self-soothing.
At the doctor’s office, hold your child’s hand and offer comforting words when it’s time for the vaccinations, but if you are nervous, don’t let it show. Your serenity can help calm your child.
Help them remain calm
Your pediatrician likely has dealt with many needle-phobic children and might have ideas for easing your child’s fears. The doctor might use less-alarming terms such as feeling a “pinch” or “slight stick.” If your child is worried about pain, ask the pediatrician about over-the-counter numbing creams to apply.
Some children may want to watch the shot to know and understand the process; others might feel better looking away. You could hum a favorite tune, play a video on your tablet, or talk about where to go for ice cream later.
When you’re done, offer words of praise to your children and gauge how they feel. You can talk about how good it feels to help others and that we can all feel better knowing that more of us are vaccinated against Covid-19 and on the way to resuming a sense of normalcy.
Remind them of the good they are doing
Your children are doing a great service to themselves and those around them by getting vaccinated. Remind them of how proud you are that they are taking this step to stay healthy.