Helping Kids Deal With Shots
8 Tips for an Easier and Less Painful Experience
By Matt Villano
Now more than ever, shots and vaccines are an important part of a safe and healthy childhood. The experience of getting these shots, however, can be a source of fear and anxiety—for children and even parents alike.
How can families make it easier? Two Child Life specialists from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles share eight important tips.
The best way to prepare kids for the experience of getting shots is to be upfront with them regarding what’s about to happen.
Chloe Reichert, Child Life Specialist in the CHLA Infusion Center, said this means being honest about the fact that kids need shots, the shots might hurt, and the nurses and other medical professionals administering the shots will do their absolute best to make it as quick and (mostly) painless as possible.
“Kids already have this innate fear of anything involving needles or pokes,” says Reichert. “A lot of [kids’ fear about shots] comes from the way their parents talk to them about medical experiences, and one of our biggest challenges can often be the messaging they get about this environment before they even come through our doors.”
While honesty is always a good policy when talking to kids about medical appointments, they don’t always need every detail of how an appointment might unfold.
Avital Abraham, Ambulatory Resource Child Life Specialist, said parents should provide children with some information about what to expect, but also consider their child’s developmental level and needs so as not to trigger anxiety unnecessarily.
The key here is settling on an explanation that is appropriate for the child’s level of development.
“Once [children] walk through those doors and meet me, I always will give them a developmentally appropriate step-by-step explanation of what the visit is going to look like,” says Abraham, who works in CHLA’s outpatient clinics. “I might tell a 3-year-old getting a flu vaccine, for example, ‘Even though this hurts, it will help your body not get sick as much,’ but that might not work for a 10-year-old.”
Abraham added: “When [kids are] older, it’s explaining how vaccines work, how they help, and why we give them.”
Give short notice.
Some psychologists like to describe anxiety like gas; it will always expand to fill a space. For this reason, parents of younger children may be better off giving their kiddos relatively short notice about the plans for the day.
Reichert explains that this means some children may benefit from knowing well in advance, such as the day before, while others may need to be told just before the shot or vaccine.
“Often, a child’s anticipatory anxiety makes it so much worse than the actual poke,” Reichert says. “It can be a delicate balance between providing the information they need in advance, while also not giving them too much time to build anxiety.”
Keep your own emotions in check.
Vaccines aren’t only emotional for children; sometimes parents can get verklempt as well.
Many parents simply don’t like seeing their youngsters upset. Others get wistful about how shots and vaccinations are connected to growing up.
Whatever the reason for grownup emotions, Abraham said it’s generally not a good idea for parents to let their children see them being ruled by big feelings on shot days. Children in these settings are constantly looking to mom and dad for verbal and psycho-emotional cues.
“Children mirror their parents’ affect and emotions,” she said. “Even babies pick up on it when their mom or dad is upset.”
Follow the professionals.
It’s important to remember that the nurses and medical professionals who administer shots and vaccines are giving dozens if not hundreds of shots a day. They know what they’re doing. The best thing is for parents to let them do their jobs.
“It’s always tough when a parent hesitates to share why their child is here, or requests, ‘Don’t tell my child there’s a needle involved,’” Reichert says.
Abraham typically tries to work in concert with parents to get a sense of how a child is feeling about the vaccine, and whether the child has any special needs she should know about.
Give kids some control.
Once children arrive for a shot or vaccine, nurses and medical professionals likely will ask them questions about their preferences.
Reichert says she tries to approach every interaction from a place of curiosity first. “I’ll ask the kids questions like, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘Why do you think you need this medicine?’ That helps me assess their understanding and anxiety about what’s going to happen and how well their parents have prepared them.”
Abraham offers other questions to help kids feel in control of the experience, such as:
- Does the child want to look or not?
- Which arm?
- Will the child sit independently or on someone’s lap?
- Does the child prefer to watch the procedure or focus on a distraction?
- Do they want the nurse to give a countdown?
While these might seem like mundane questions, the answers can be critically important to how kids cope with the experience.
“Kids want control over situations where they don’t feel comfortable, and asking these questions can provide it,” Abraham says. “They don’t have a choice about the shot, but giving them the power to decide how they sit or whether we count or whether they watch [the procedure] can help them get through it.”
Welcome pain coping tools.
In some cases, the easiest way for medical professionals to help anxious children get through a shot or vaccination is to provide various options for pain relief. CHLA nurses and professionals use a few different tools to achieve this objective.
Generally, these tools are designed to trick the nervous system into focusing on one spot on the arm or leg while the nurse or medical professional administers the shot nearby. One of the tools, a device called Buzzy, vibrates and looks like a bee. Another amounts to numbing spray that chills the injection site temporarily.
“If we use our available tools that we have to help with non-pharmacological pain mitigation, I think kids will cope more effectively,” says Reichert. “If they’re being forced to do something and being held down, it will be harder.”
Most grownups have gotten shots or vaccines at some point in their lives, and this information may be helpful to pass along to children at opportune moments.
Abraham says that in the case of COVID-19, having grownups share personal stories about their own experiences with this vaccine might help assuage fears that their children might be experiencing in the moment.
“Something unique about the COVID vaccine is that adults and kids alike are getting it now,” she said. “If a child is fearful and a parent or I say, ‘We got this shot, too,’ it changes the conversation. Suddenly the child might feel more at ease and ask, ‘What did you do to help get through it?’ That can make a huge difference for everybody involved.”
For information about the COVID vaccine and children, click here.