Few things are more challenging than trying to vaccinate a terrified and uncooperative child. I have seen children wedge themselves in a corner and refuse to give way. I saw them yelling and screaming. And I saw them sitting completely still, but crying all the time.
I am an associate professor of pediatrics and have been a primary care pediatrician for over 25 years. I have encountered these situations thousands of times in my career.
While getting shots provokes anxiety in most children, the degree of anxiety can be reduced. As a parent, there are three things you can do to improve the vaccine experience for your child. I refer to them as “The Three P’s.”
It is important to let your child know that they will be receiving vaccines unless you know that your child will have a severe anxiety reaction. You may think it’s best to keep upcoming shots hidden until your child arrives at the doctor’s office, but this approach may make them more anxious and less able to handle it. Children need time to process what is going to happen. Let them know on the day of the visit, but with enough time to discuss it with them in advance.
It is essential that you ask your child how they feel about receiving a shot. Giving them the opportunity to express their feelings can reduce the amount of stress and anxiety they feel about it. Confirm their feelings by telling them you know that needles can be a little scary, but then reassure them that they can handle them. Explain why they receive vaccines and emphasize that it is for their overall good.
You must also specifically describe what is going to happen. For example, tell your child that the nurse will clean their arm with an alcohol cube, count to three and then give the injection. It often helps if you have a plan for going after the vaccines as well. For example, let your child know that they can visit a grandparent or go to the park. Try not to reward them with food as it can accidentally teach them to eat emotionally.
Giving your child basic information along with the opportunity to express their feelings will save them from having to process everything that happens at once. It often helps children to handle the process better.
When your child is preparing for the vaccine to be administered, stay physically close to them. Talk to your child in a calm voice and remind them of the things you discussed at home. Let your child hug you with the opposite arm while he gets their lap. This is often all that is needed to get them through it.
Such support teaches children you will be there for them when they need you, which builds security. This security in turn gives them confidence to try things they might otherwise avoid.
After your child receives their injection, give them a moment to assemble themselves – 30 seconds or so. Then tell them how well they did and that you are proud of them. Point out that they did something they either did not want to do or did not think they could do.
It teaches children that they can do things even when they are scared or anxious. You can remind children of this experience when they need to get shots again – or when they are scared or worried about something else, such as public speaking or a school project.
Children are not small adults. They do not always have the ability to know how they feel or to express themselves when needed. It’s up to you to give them the opportunity and space to identify their feelings – and then to help validate those feelings.
Preparing your child for vaccines, staying close to them during the process, and praising them for a job well done will help them navigate this often challenging process with more confidence, courage, and confidence.
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