The moment we have been waiting for….vaccines for kids! While those of us with kids still under five move closer to the finish line, parents and teachers can do a happy dance knowing that elementary ages are finally eligible. As a mom with a 4th grader and a partner of an elementary P.E. teacher, we are exhaling a bit and feeling hopeful knowing that there is another level of safety getting tightened up on this pandemic journey.
Guess who is NOT doing a happy dance. The kids! Just like with their round of shots through the years, they dread that larger-than-life needle. So how do you prepare kids for vaccines and possible after-effects? We’ve got tips to help.
What is your child’s temperament like?
Do they need more time to warm up or less? Are they fairly flexible or anxious about new things? Typically, telling younger children a few days before the event is fine whereas older kiddos could use a week or two. Write it together on the calendar, and if possible, give them some choice and agency in the day or time.
Even the choice of 3:00 versus 3:30 helps them feel more in control and less anxious.
With it now on the calendar, have a few sessions to role play (yes, even the older ages!) and practice. Have fun with it by playing doctor (kids love pretending with dress-up costumes too) and letting them be the one to give the shot first. Use stuffies or characters to ease into it if needed.
Use books + art
While there are some great children’s books about going to the doctor, for this age range we recommend books that address the worry and help teach coping strategies. Find Your Calm by Gabi Garcia is excellent, along with these recommendations by Books that Heal Kids. Art can also be therapeutic for children, both in anticipation of the appointment and afterward. Give them a variety of colors to express themselves, staying curious and encouraging them to “name” the worry or big feeling they might be drawing.
Make a plan
Use the opportunity to build executive functioning skills by talking through the schedule including the few days afterwards in case they are not feeling well. Are there sports that might need to be skipped? A plan for extra books from the library or other quiet activities to have at the ready? A plan to make up any extra school work? Preparing ahead can also help siblings and parents that might also be affected. Plan what special stuffy or lovey they may want to bring and a special event or activity afterwards to look forward to (not as a contingent for “being good.”) If you haven’t already, this is a great time to teach them about their brain so you can…
Be ready for action!
Let’s be real here. With some children, no matter how much you practice and prepare, they are going to lose their minds.
True story: My daughter had to undergo a lot of blood work when she was 3. It was horrible- she screamed bloody murder with every vial of blood they had to take (literally screaming “why are you doing this to me I don’t like you” while the poor nurse was shaking) and from then on, she associated any shot with that experience. It has taken years and practice and she still gets anxious but now as a 4th grader, she knows it is her brain’s false alarm. And, she still needs support with needles. I have her look me in the eyes while holding her hand and we count down together while she takes deep breaths and gets it over with.
As a bonus, we discovered my preschooler is newly afraid and has even stronger lungs than her sister. Even without a negative experience, she SCREAMED so loudly at Walgreens for the flu shot the entire store was on edge. I firmly but lovingly held her, told her she was safe and gave the pharmacist the look that said “right now buddy do it QUICK” while I counted down from 20 and told her to keep looking in my eyes. If either of these examples applies to your child, know that you are not alone! Stay as calm as you can, validate afterward that YES it was scary and it hurt, AND that it is over and you are there to give comfort. Acknowledge what a big thing they went through and take some deep breaths together to regulate you both.
Let it go
Then, move on. Stick to your plan, hunker down, put on music they love and maybe even take a moment to yourself once the day is over. Parenting is tough, and seeing our children sick or scared is never easy. Remind yourself that kids are resilient and, so are you.
More COVID vaccine information