Written by Doctor G

Talking to kids about shots

My almost 6 year old has his well check up next week. I know as soon as I tell him, he’s going to ask if he has to get a shot. He probably does. What do I say?

Dan, in Lake Ariel, PA

A: “Do I have to get a SHOT?!” What percentage of the time do you hear this from your kids on the way to the doctor’s office? Many parents are uncertain – tell the truth? Lie? Fake a seizure?

Dan, I know the struggle of explaining something painful that is necessary and helpful. There are valuable lessons here for our children. Sometimes doing the right thing is difficult. Sometimes parents require things of kids that they don’t understand but are best. Being brave means doing something you’re scared about. For parents as well as kids!

Let’s start here. When your child asks if they will be getting a shot, you have two good options. Either tell the truth or say you don’t know. Of course, with the evolving immunization schedule, “I don’t know” often is the truth! Telling the truth adds to the foundation of trust your kids have in you. Even when it’s bad news, this teaches them, I can count on my parents to tell it like it is.

Should you prepare them ahead of time? This depends on your child. Some kids will take this as a reason to get very worked up and stay that way. Some kids will not be able to think of anything else in the time between this announcement and the appointment. For most children it is reasonable to wait until you are asked. After all, the expectation of pain is often worse than the event.

“WHYYYYY?????” Explain this in an age appropriate way. If you’re not sure why exactly the shots are important, say simply “They protect you from many bad illnesses.” It is fine to suggest your child ask the doctor why vaccines are important. This teaches your child to start to take an interest in their own health care. Your doctor ought to be able to give an age appropriate explanation of immunizations and why they are necessary, and it takes the focus off of the parent.

Sympathize but don’t apologize. Go ahead and teach empathy by agreeing with your child that shots are no fun. Relate a story about an immunization you recently received (yes, grown ups need shots too). Remind them that the hurt only lasts for 3 hippopotamus (you know: “one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, 3 hippopotamus” and it’s done). If you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” be clear that you are sorry it hurts, not sorry they are getting the shot. Afterward let your child know how relieved you are that they are protected from some diseases.

Please don’t threaten your kids with shots! As a family doctor, I hear “Be good or you’ll get a shot!” often in the exam room. This is not true. I don’t punish kids with injections. And neither should you, Children and Youth Services really frowns on that! Also, it sets up the false expectation that good behavior will mean no immunizations.

It’s a great idea to shift the focus of the visit away from the immunizations. Ask your son or daughter what they would like to tell the doctor. Remind them if they have had a physical complaint frequently that you’re hoping the doctor will address. Suggest they mention their hobbies and interests. Ask them what else they think the doctor will do besides the shots.

Remember, this is a life-saving experience. You are protecting your kids from illnesses that, in centuries past, parents could only watch their kids get and pray. At the same time you have the opportunity to teach valuable life lessons.

A last practical suggestion: If you have access to one, bring a portable game device (or a phone) or DVD player. Studies show that children who are engaged in watching something they enjoy perceive half the pain or less during a medical procedure than children who are paying attention to the procedure. Even a beloved book may work to take their mind off the vaccines.

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7 thoughts on “Talking to kids about shots”

  1. Great suggestions, one I’d like to add, having just taken my five year-old in for shots. He’s such a brave little tiger, but it helped for him to bring his favorite stuffed animal, curious George. I also recomend not letting them see the needles going into their leg or arm, it’s just a personal thing, but having them look the other way, seems to minimize the trauma there, and it’s forgotten even sooner..he squeezed George and looked the other way, winced a little and it was over..not so bad.

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