Vaccination: how children and teenagers might feel
Children and teenagers might have varying feelings about vaccination.
Many children and teenagers will be OK with vaccinations and injections. But some might be worried about getting an injection, or they might get upset during the injection itself. Some might also have heard misinformation from friends or other sources and feel worried or unsure about vaccines.
This means it can help to prepare your child for vaccination before the appointment. What you do to prepare your child depends on your child’s age, development and feelings.
Children of all ages can feel nervous or worried about vaccinations or injections. It’s important to acknowledge and name these feelings. This can help your child learn to understand and manage their emotions.
Preparing babies, toddlers, preschoolers and children for vaccination
If your child is going for a vaccination, it’s a good idea to tell them about it before the appointment. But you can time this conversation to suit your child.
For example, some children might prefer to be told on the morning of their appointment. This will stop them overthinking things and feeling anxious. You could say something like, ‘We’re going to the doctor for some arm medicine, then we’ll go to the park’.
Other children might prefer to be told a few days before the appointment, so they have time to prepare and ask questions. For example, they might want to know what will happen at the appointment, why they need vaccination and whether it will hurt.
It’s always best to give your child clear, accurate, age-appropriate information that they can understand. For example:
- For a child who’s worried about an injection, you could say, ‘The needle might pinch a bit, but it’s over very quickly’.
- For a child who wants to know how vaccination works, you could say, ‘The medicine helps your body make blood soldiers. The soldiers can fight viruses for you’.
Other ways to prepare your child for vaccination include the following:
- Read books – you could try Peppa gets a vaccination or Doctor Bing! for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, or A shot in the arm! for school-age children.
- Play games – you and your child could play dress-up games about going to the GP to get a vaccination.
- Paint, draw or do colouring in or other craft activities – for example, your child might like to draw or colour in a picture of a vaccination superhero.
If your child has questions about vaccination and you don’t know the answers, tell your child you’ll find out. Make sure you get back to your child.
If you need to explain vaccines and how they work to your child, it’s always best to get your information from reliable, trustworthy sources. These include your GP or child and family health nurse, an immunisation provider, or government and health department websites.
Preparing pre-teens and teenagers for vaccination
Talking through vaccination facts and feelings is the best way to help pre-teens and teenagers feel confident and comfortable about getting vaccinations.
Here are ideas to help these conversations go well:
- Listen actively to your child’s concerns.
- Answer your child’s questions openly, honestly and factually. Be calm, positive and reassuring.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, suggest checking some reliable and trustworthy sources together.
- Talk about why it’s essential to get information about diseases and vaccination from reliable and trustworthy sources.
- Share your own feelings and experiences. For example, ‘Yes, I got a headache and felt a bit tired, but I was fine again the next day. Getting the flu can make you a lot sicker than that’.
- Emphasise why vaccination is good. For example, ‘If we get vaccinated, we help to protect Kobi, who can’t get vaccinated yet’. Or ‘If we get vaccinated, we avoid getting very sick. And this means we can keep doing the things we want to do, like seeing friends and family’.
- Encourage your child to speak to your GP about their concerns.
- Take a break from the conversation if things get tense or your child gets upset. You and your child can talk about the issues again when you’re both calm.
Vaccination consent laws vary across states and territories. In general, a parent or legal guardian can provide consent for vaccination on behalf of their teenage child. In some circumstances, teenagers might be able to provide consent without a parent or legal guardian. You can check what laws apply to you and your child with your local health authority. If your child refuses vaccination, it’s important to respect your child’s wishes and not vaccinate until they’re ready.
Handling injection anxiety or needle phobia: tips
Children of all ages can find vaccination injections upsetting, uncomfortable or painful. If your child is nervous about injections or has a needle phobia, these tips can help them have a positive experience when they get their vaccination:
- Get vaccinated at a GP clinic or with your child’s usual GP. This might be more private and comfortable for your child.
- If you have questions for the immunisation provider, call ahead to discuss these. Long conversations just before a vaccination can make children more anxious.
- Give your child some choice so they feel more in control of the situation. You could ask which day they want to be vaccinated, what they want to do during the vaccination, or what they want to do afterwards.
- Ask the immunisation provider whether they have anaesthetic creams or gels to numb the injection area. If they don’t, you can get creams or gels at a pharmacy and take them to the clinic yourself. Some immunisation providers have a small vibrating device (a ‘buzzy’) that can reduce pain at the injection area.
- Make sure your child is wearing short sleeves. If your child is wearing a jumper, get them to take it off before going in for the appointment.
- Be patient with your child. If you’re feeling frustrated, try to keep this to yourself.
Tips for babies, toddlers and preschoolers
Young children who are having an injection might wriggle or cry. It’s upsetting for them, and it can also be upsetting for you. These ideas can make things easier:
- Breastfeed if your child is still breastfeeding.
- Give your child sweet liquid, like sucrose syrup, immediately before the injection.
- Give your child a toy to play with. Noisy toys can often work well.
- Read a favourite book with your child.
- Give your child a favourite blanket or soft toy to cuddle.
- Change your child’s position or move around with your child immediately after the injection.
Tips for older children, pre-teens and teenagers
Before, during and after an injection, older children and teenagers might feel signs of anxiety, like stomach pain, faintness or breathlessness. These ideas can help:
- Encourage your child to listen to music or watch a video on a tablet or phone.
- Get your child to answer a question like ‘Where’s your favourite place to go on holidays?’
- Encourage your child to do breathing exercises or relaxation exercises. Your child can practise these exercises beforehand and do them during the vaccination.
If you need extra support, contact your immunisation provider. They can talk with you about the best way to get your child vaccinated. Some children or teenagers with severe needle phobia might need to see a psychologist or hypnotherapist to work through their phobia.
Vaccination for children with disability, autism or other additional needs
If your child has disability, autism or other additional needs, they might need developmentally appropriate information about vaccination. You could ask your child’s health or disability professional to help you develop something specific for your child.
And if your child has sensory sensitivities or other needs that make injections particularly challenging, you could ask your child’s health or disability professional for some strategies. In some circumstances, you might need to consider sedation for the vaccination.
Your child’s doctor or disability professional will be able to help you work out the best options for your child.