Between childhood vaccines, annual flu shots, and the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s likely that members of your family will need to get at least two shots this year. No one likes getting shots, but if your child or teen has a fear of needles, this event can be especially stressful. You can use these quick tips to help your family cope with needle anxiety and make vaccine visits more pleasant.
1. Be honest and open about an upcoming shot.
Many children associate going to the doctor with getting a shot. So if your family is getting a vaccine at the doctor’s office, it’s likely they will ask about it. Although it may make them nervous to know about an upcoming shot, it’s better not to surprise them or mislead them. Be matter-of-fact and truthful about the appointment. Dishonesty about a shot can cause distrust and make future visits to the doctor harder on everyone.
2. Give your child short notice.
Consider your child’s level of maturity when you let them know about their appointment. An older child or teen can learn about the appointment a day or two before the visit. This will give them time to prepare their schedule, but not too much time to think about the shot. A younger child may have a better experience with less notice. On the day of the appointment, be direct and let your child know that they will get a shot. Try not to make the shot the focus of the conversation. Instead, concentrate on what you will do after the appointment.
3. Avoid guarantees and promises.
Don’t promise the shot won’t hurt. Both you and your child know how a shot feels. Let them know it will feel a pinch for a few seconds, and then it will be over. If you don’t anticipate any shots during your child’s appointment, don’t promise the visit will be shot-free. Each visit with your doctor is an opportunity to catch up on missed doses, and some vaccine recommendations can change between appointments. It’s best to avoid making a promise you may not be able to keep by letting them know they may get a shot. If they don’t end up with a shot during the visit, it’s a pleasant surprise.
4. Use age-appropriate language to answer questions.
Sometimes, children are upset because they do not understand why shots are necessary. Explain to your child that no one likes getting shots, but vaccines can protect your family from serious or even fatal illnesses. If they ask about pain, be honest and tell your child the shot will likely feel like a pinch, and they may feel sore afterward. Reassure them that the injection is quick and describe the process using words like pressure, poking, squeezing, or pinch rather than sting, hurt, or pain.
5. Set a good example.
No parent wants their child to feel afraid or experience pain (even for one second). Understandably, you may be anxious during the appointment as well. If you act nervous, your child may pick up on your behavior and become more afraid. Try to be warm and supportive, but remain calm and unapologetic.
6. Allow your child to have some control.
If you feel your child is ready, you can let them have some agency throughout the appointment. If they are getting the shot at the doctor’s office or local pharmacy, allow them to pick which arm they get their shot, the band-aid they will use, and if they want to countdown to the shot. If you are going to a doctor’s visit, you can work with your provider to make sure children can choose where to sit and if they would prefer to sit upright or lay down.
7. Comfort your child through the process.
Younger children may want to sit in your lap, and older children may feel comforted by holding and squeezing your hand. While they are getting a shot, praise them for being brave, but don’t scold them if they cry or panic. Speak to them in a soft voice and make eye contact.
8. Distract your child while they are getting the shot.
Seeing the needle can be the scariest part for many children. It can be helpful to have your child look in the other direction and distract them with quiet activities that will keep their mind off the vaccine. These activities can include:
Some parents also choose to bring a book or their child’s favorite toy and let them hold the item during the shot.
9. Recommend coughing or breathing through the shot.
Some people find that coughing right before the shot and once during it can help with the pain. (Just be sure to cover your mouth!) Consider teaching your child the “cough trick.”
Breathing exercises during the shot can also be helpful for pain and anxiety. Help your child try this breathing technique:
10. Praise your child for getting the shot.
Thank your child for being brave (even if they cried), and mention how happy you are that they were able to get the vaccine. Positive reinforcement can make future trips to the doctor smoother and less scary. Although it may be tempting to apologize, it’s best not to make the situation anyone’s fault. A few simple things you can say after your child gets a shot:
11. Reward your child.
You can try to do something fun with your child after the appointment. Many families get ice cream, spend extra time at the playground, or watch a movie together after vaccines. These small activities can help make the memory of the day a bit happier.
When you schedule your child’s appointment, be sure to ask your doctor about your child’s vaccine schedule, as recommendations can change. You can also ask about medications or numbing treatments they may recommend to manage pain during the shot and for any side effects after the vaccine.