Help! My 5-year-old has a huge fear of doctors, nurses, and even the pediatrician’s office. He has an older sister who has been trying to help him be brave about getting shots, but all this a done is cause more anxiety. He is due for a bunch of vaccinations in the next few months. How should I handle this?
It’s a good idea to help your son manage these fears while he’s so young. He’ll need to know he can trust these wonderful helpers in times of trouble (thank you, Mr. Rogers). And vaccinations are crucial to his health as well as that of others, especially in these times.
Your top priority is to be calm and confident yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing the best thing for your child through preventive health care. He can feel your anxiety and conversely, your sense of calm. You can model it for him, too. When you’re talking about the vaccine for COVID-19 and when you’re scheduled for your own checkups or vaccines, speak positively about the upcoming visit. Try something like, “I’m so glad we have a doctor who takes such good care of our family!”
While I appreciate that you’ve enlisted your daughter’s help, is she possibly creating too much conversation around the subject? Less is more! When he mentions his fear, teach her to respond simply with, “I know you’re worried. Yeah, it pinches a little, but then it’s done! Let’s go play!” As the parent, you can add, “I’ll be right there with you.” Then redirect him to something he enjoys. The key here is to validate his concerns, but then move on.
Perhaps your child would benefit from watching a video or reading a book about vaccines, to take the mystery out of it. Learn together, and he will not only have less to fear, but will also enjoy special time with you.
Bergen Nelson, MD, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, recommends a video featuring Sid the Science Kid called Getting a Shot. You Can Do It! It’s fun and engaging for young children while being very informative. Sid assures children that even though it might hurt a little, it helps a lot. This way you’re being honest with your child while assuring him that the vaccine will also make him healthy and strong. You can watch it on YouTube.
Dr. Nelson also suggests giving children some power over the situation by providing choices during the office visit. For instance, do they want the vaccination in their right or left arm? Do they want to sit on Mom’s lap? Or hold someone’s hand? Dr. Nelson says to move quickly, hold your child in a big hug, help him take deep breaths, and then give him lots of praise when it’s done.
While I don’t advocate sticker charts and external rewards, getting a shot is an exception. When you first schedule it, let him know it’s on the calendar and that he’ll be treated with his favorite milkshake or other treat afterwards. Then drop the subject until the day of the visit and remind him again. Most of the children I know remember the milkshake with great excitement, more than the vaccination. They are also proud that they are stronger and healthier because they were brave and took the shot like a pro. As Sid the Science Kid says, “You can do it!”
Sid the Science Kid Image Courtesy PBS Kids