COVID-19: How to help your child overcome vaccine fear or hesitancy

Children aged five to 11 are now eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in New Zealand, a decision that will help to protect your child and the wider community against the dangers of the virus. 

The vaccine - a course of two pediatric doses, administered eight weeks apart - has been through scrupulous safety checking processes. It has received the thumbs up from Medsafe, New Zealand's medical regulatory body, as being both safe and effective for the age group - and signed off by Cabinet who took the advice of New Zealand's COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group. 

But as a Government-commissioned survey in December highlights, not all parents are jumping at the opportunity. The poll found more than a quarter of caregivers were reluctant or uncertain about whether or not they would have their kids vaccinated.

This sentiment, of course, extends to children. The prospect of a stranger sticking a needle into their arm probably doesn't sound like fun. It's extremely understandable - and very normal - for children to be fearful of vaccinations or reluctant to get their shots.

Meanwhile, as kids near the 'terrible tweens', their peers become more and more influential. It becomes easier for young people to believe conspiracy theories or untruths if they are populating the places where they get their information such as social media, or social circles.

Whether your child is in the five-to-11 age bracket or is aged 12 and over, young people need to be given the space to explore and develop their own opinions, says Dr Emma Woodward, a child psychologist at The Child Psychology Service. Parents should foster an open conversation with their kids about the vaccine and look at trusted sources of information to discuss the benefits of vaccination - without the parent necessarily pushing their own stance. 

Dr Woodward spoke to Newshub about the ways parents can help their children to overcome fear or hesitancy around vaccination, while encouraging them to make a decision for themselves. 

My child is hesitant to get vaccinated. How should I talk to them about it?

"I would normalise it in the first instance and come from a position of understanding. Children are going to be naturally apprehensive. If you're vaccinated yourself, you can share your experience with them. It's really helpful to use metaphors with children as 'vaccination, 'shot', 'injection' are all triggering words. 

"Be open and honest with them about the point of vaccination; it's like a shield against COVID-19 that's important for them to have, to not only protect themselves, but other people too. It also helps everyone continue to do the things they like to do - it means we can go on holiday, do the sports we like, go camping - you've got to give them a motivational buy-in that's relevant to them. Don't hide anything from your kids and share your experience - 'once I did it, I didn't have to think about it again'. Help them focus on the 'after' bit. 

"A sense of self-agency is also important - you want them to feel like they're making the choice themselves, within your guided parameters. And yes, having a vaccination isn't the most pleasant thing in the world - normalise that slight apprehension - but it's very quick and once it's done, we can all get on with our day. 

"The first thing to do is just listen to them, ask them what it is they're worried about - it might not be what you think."

Child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward.
Child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward. Photo credit: Supplied

My child's friends are vaccine hesitant and I'm worried it will influence them. What should I do?

"Understand that when children get to their early teens, their family holds less influence and their peer group becomes paramount in their influence. You don't want to start diminishing their friends' points of view because that will trigger an 'us or them' response - and they will choose their friends. 

"You should be careful and diplomatic. It's not a 'we're right, your friends are wrong' conversation - it's putting the ball in their court and helping them explore their critical thinking skills: 'That's what your friends say, this is what we say, but what do you think?' You're then giving them a sense of agency and control and showing them you respect their thoughts and feelings. Ask, 'what are the risks and benefits for you?' then help them explore that through the actual science, not the emotion. 

"A lot of vaccine hesitancy comes from a position where we seek out sources of information that confirm how we feel, rather than inform how we should feel. It's emotionally layered, and children and young people are emotionally layered. If that's how they feel, ask them what the costs or benefits could be if they went with that feeling. Help them unpick it for themselves and give them the framework to do some critical thinking and make rational decisions rather than emotionally charged decisions.

"Also, they don't have to tell their friends if they've been vaccinated. You can still be friends and have different stances on vaccination, it's normal to have different opinions and that doesn't have to impact your friendship."

My child is scared of needles. What can I do to reassure them? 

"It's absolutely normal for people to feel apprehensive about someone else putting a needle into their skin. It's not a natural experience and our body is already preparing to activate its defence system, which triggers a fear response that says 'no thank you'. This is where we have to teach them to rationalise: 'Okay, it's not going to be pleasant, but I'm doing this to protect myself and other people'. Explain and demystify the process as much as possible. 

"As a parent, you know if overtalking is going to raise their anxiety or whether your child needs more information to reduce their anxiety. Give them as much control over the process as possible - if you and your child have decided on getting the vaccine, the vaccination itself is going to happen, but how is it going to happen? How will that be best for you? What will that look like? 

"Some children will be motivated by the fact that they're protecting themselves and other people, other kids are going to be motivated by having McDonald's afterwards. You've got to use your own expertise as a parent to determine what's going to help your child override that initial fear response and get the job done."

My child is always on social media and I'm worried they've been exposed to misinformation. How can I discuss this with them and let them know what to look out for?

"This is where we need to be getting in early. Lots of the internet is a wonderful source of information, but anyone can post that information, and we don't know everyone's motivations. We need to talk about fake news - what it is, how it's created, and the skills they need to determine what's fact and what's fake. Teach your child how to fact-check, how to check the reliability of information, explain what sites are trustworthy and what that means. 

"Ask them to understand their own motivations - when you started looking at that source, were you looking at it to try and confirm how you felt? Were you looking for information to prove that you were right? Or were you looking for information to inform how you should feel about it? What was the basis of your research? People who put out and go down rabbit holes of misinformation are often very good researchers, but the motivation behind their research is more emotive than analytical."

At the time of writing, 169,316 pediatric doses have been administered since the rollout began on January 17 - that's about 35 percent of eligible children in New Zealand.

The vaccine is free to all, however parents of legal guardians will need to accompany their children to their vaccination appointment to provide consent. 

You can find more information on getting your five-to-11-year-old vaccinated on the Government's Unite Against COVID-19 website, which also has more information on the safety and efficacy of the pediatric vaccine.

If you would like to talk through any questions or worries you can call 0800 28 29 26 from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week. The COVID Vaccination Healthline team will be able to chat through your concerns and, if needed, can refer you to a medical professional.