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Prepping kids for the poke: Five ways to ease fear, anxiety before getting a vaccine

OHSU Doernbecher Child Life experts offer tips to help ensure your child’s appointment goes smoothly
Three children sitting on a chair in the Doernbecher lobby after getting their COVID-19 vaccine.
From left, Kyrah and Kingston Baker-Bryan and Alex Williams wait in the kids' lobby area after getting their COVID-19 vaccination on Tues., Nov. 9, 2021, at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Children ages 5-11 are now eligible for the vaccine after it was approved by the CDC and other health authorities. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. They are also the single best thing that people can do to help end the pandemic and keep loved ones, schools and communities safe. While many families are eager for this added layer of protection against the novel coronavirus, children age 5 and older may have a great deal of anxiety about receiving their vaccine.

“It is common and perfectly normal for anyone, of any age, to feel nervous before getting a shot,” says Rebekah Coles, manager of the Child Life Therapy Program at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “Whether it’s feelings of uncertainty, concerns of pain or even a fear of needles, the key to overcoming these stresses for young children is calm, productive communication that focuses on positive outcomes.”

Coles and her Child Life colleagues recommend the following tips to help ease pre-vaccine jitters for kids.

  • Start a conversation: Some kids have already heard a lot about vaccines – both true, and untrue – from their friends or neighbors. Ask your child what they know, and how they feel about getting a vaccine. Be sure to listen carefully to any concerns or fears they may have, and work together to correct any misunderstandings or ease worries.

    “The language you use is really important,” says Coles. “While it may feel reassuring to you, making dismissive statements like: ‘You don’t need to worry about that’ or ‘You’ll be fine,’ can make a child think that their feelings are wrong.” 

Instead, Coles suggests that adults help to validate, and support a child’s feelings: ‘It’s OK to be scared, but I’ll be there to help you through it’ or ‘You may feel a little pinch, but it won’t last long.’

  • Be honest: New experiences of any kind can spark anxiety in kids, especially those that may involve pain. To help them prepare and visualize the experience ahead, tell your child what they can expect at their vaccine appointment: Who will they see, what they’ll be asked to do (including waiting 15-30 minutes after getting their vaccine), and what they can expect to feel.
  • Make a plan: Give your child the opportunity to make a few simple choices about their vaccine journey ahead of their scheduled appointment:
    • In which arm would they like to get the vaccine?
    • Do they want to watch the injection?
    • Do they want to bring a special toy or stuffed animal?
    • Is there a special outfit they’d like to wear that would be most comfortable?
    • What activity would they like to bring from home to pass the time?

Making these choices will give the child a sense of control and ownership over their own experience.

  • Focus on the benefits: Remind your child that getting a vaccine helps to keep them, their friends, teachers and family healthy. The vaccine will also give them the best chance at a safe return to all the things they love and miss, like sports, parties and play dates!
  • Celebrate: No matter what happens during the vaccine appointment, take time to praise your child.

    “Regardless of nerves, tears or tantrums, your child has done something amazing by getting their vaccine,” says Coles. “Recognize their bravery and willingness to protect themselves and others by giving an extra high-five, cuddle or special treat. They’ve earned it.”

Bonus Tip: Use these steps for other anxiety-inducing instances -- such as vision checks, surgical procedures or dental visits -- to help your child become more confident in their health care experiences.

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