Children ages 5 to 11 became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine last week, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on elementary-age kids receiving the shot.
Health care providers started administering the shots just hours after the CDC’s approval, and some cities and states are offering incentives such as $100 gift cards for kids to get the vaccine.
“There’s a large cohort of parents, and to some extent a large cohort of kids, that are really excited to get vaccinated for this,” Adam Keating, a general pediatrician with Cleveland Clinic Children’s, told USA TODAY. “They realize these are very effective vaccines.”
If you’re taking your child to get vaccinated against COVID-19, experts say there are approaches that can make it easier for you both. From preparing distractions for your little ones to talking with kids about side effects, here’s what you need to know.
Honesty is the best policy
Keating said parents can form a “strategy” to talk about the COVID-19 vaccine – and vaccines in general – with their children.
“Anytime you’re doing a vaccine with a kid, it’s worth having a conversation beforehand and a strategy before they get the vaccine,” Keating said.
“In general, my preference is that this is a conversation that the kid has time to prepare for beforehand, and they don’t learn about it 30 seconds before it happens,” he added. “That doesn’t give the kid control over the vaccine. And so much of the worry and the pain that happens with vaccines is about the lack of control and the lack of time to prepare.”
Erlanger Turner, assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, agreed that “it’s really important to be honest with your child” about any vaccine.
Turner emphasized “being able to talk with them at an age appropriate level about that, letting them know that the vaccine has been shown to be helpful by doctors, and that it works for everyone, regardless if they’re younger or older.”
He added that kids should also have a chance to ask questions about getting the shot.
“Sometimes as an adult we may be concerned about ‘what is a kid going to ask?’ So we may just give them a lot of information without providing an opportunity for them to ask questions,” Turner said.
“The more information that you give kids at an age appropriate level as you’re being honest with them about those situations, it actually helps them to be less anxious and worried,” he explained.
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Strategies that work for parents and kids
Whether you’re taking your child to get vaccinated in the coming days or next year, Keating said there are “good, evidence-based strategies for helping kids to be more comfortable with shots.”
That includes letting them “choose where they sit, whether it’s on the table or on a parent’s lap. They can choose which arm they get it into. They can choose whether or not they look or they don’t. They can prepare themselves with distraction techniques, whether it’s a screen or a toy or a book or singing.”
Turner said parents can also practice breathing exercises with kids, including taking “a couple of really deep breaths” to “help better regulate yourself and help you feel less anxious.”
He added that parents can also give their children cues to signal they don’t need to be scared about vaccines.
“It’s really important for parents to really manage their own fears and anxieties that they may have about their child getting vaccinated,” he said. “Because if they see you being worried or concerned, that may freak them out and make them a little bit more anxious about the situation.”
Talking about side effects
According to the CDC, kids may have some side effects after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, which can include a sore arm, redness and swelling on the arm where the shot the was administered, tiredness and other minor symptoms.
But health officials say any side effects should go away in a few days. Turner said parents shouldn’t be afraid of telling their child they might experience these symptoms, but they can also explain the vaccine’s benefits.
“Talking with them about those risks can help normalize that this is an experience that others may feel and not just you,” he said, adding that parents can tell their kids, “I’m a little bit worried that you may not feel great for a couple days, but I’m also excited that this is a way that’s going to help you be healthy and safe.”
Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, has been reported after the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination in children 12-17 years old, according to the CDC. But those cases are rare, and Keating noted that a coronavirus infection “has a significantly higher risk of myocarditis.”
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Keating urged parents and children who may have questions to talk to a pediatrician or health care provider about side effects or concerns surrounding vaccines.
“It’s a big deal for a kid to get a shot, particularly when it’s scary and they’re young,” Keating said. “Everything that we can do to help make this more comfortable, less fearful early on makes a big difference for their lifetime relationship with medical care.”