This article was updated Nov. 3, 2021 at 6:00 p.m.
As incredible as it seems, the COVID-19 vaccines are actually here and people across the country are receiving them. Vaccines began rolling out in California the week of Nov. 1, 2021, but only for children ages 5 and up. COVID-19 vaccines for children younger than 5 years old remain unavailable. Even for families that have received vaccines, that does not mean that life will return to normal any time soon.
So how do parents and caregivers explain all of this to their children? Many kids may be concerned about their safety as they hear people talking about getting protected from COVID-19.
Dr. Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and mood disorders at the Child Mind Institute; and Dr. Deborah Pontillo, a child diagnostician, developmental and behavioral specialist and therapist at San Diego Kids First, gave their tips on how to manage vaccine impatience and fear in kids.
Talk About How the Vaccines Work and Acknowledge Kids’ Fears
The first questions kids might have are around the new vaccines and how they work. Domingues said she explained this to her 5-year-old son by telling him that “they will give you a little part of the virus so your body knows what to do so you won’t get sick. … Our body uses the vaccine to get strong, like building up muscles to fight it, so it won’t hurt you.”
She added that it’s helpful to draw a parallel to the flu vaccine, and remind kids that we already get vaccinated against the flu every year.
Kids may also be feeling afraid about vaccinations themselves, as well as about how this vaccine is new. Domingues said caregivers should not over-emphasize the newness of the vaccine and instead “only draw attention to the fact that it’s a new vaccine only in that it’s a new virus.”
“With my son, we’ve already talked about that it’s a new virus, so we said, ‘Scientists and doctors are making a new vaccine to help our bodies stay healthy at this time,’” she said.
Pontillo added that it’s completely normal for kids to be scared of shots, but caregivers can remind them why we get vaccines.
“A lot of kids know what a shot is and hate it,” she said. “If they’re scared to go to the doctor, it’s because of a vaccine. … You can say, ‘I know you don’t like this, but it’s going to keep you healthy, it’s going to make your body strong and fight off getting sick.’”
You want to be making sure you’re providing enough information to be reassuring … but we don't want to make it the focus of our lives.Deborah Pontillo, San Diego Kids First child diagnostician, developmental and behavioral specialist and therapist
Pontillo said even 3-year-olds know what COVID-19 is and that they have to wear masks, so caregivers can use that prior understanding to explain the vaccine.
“You can say, ‘You know how you wear a mask for your protection? The vaccine is another way of making your body strong to protect you so you don’t get sick,’” Pontillo said. “It’s an easy leap [for kids] to make.”
Remind Kids that They Need to Wait for Their Turn
While vaccines are here for kids 5 and up, they won’t be coming very soon for younger children, so talking about the vaccination process is a good time to remind kids about waiting their turn, Domingues said.
She suggested that caregivers talk to kids about how some people are more vulnerable than others — like grandmas and grandpas — and they need the vaccine’s help first.
As a sample script, Domingues said caregivers can say, “When we’re young, our bodies are not that vulnerable, so we’re going to wait our turn,” since most kids are familiar with the concept of waiting in line.
She said caregivers can tell kids, “We have to start with people who might get sick before you and me, so that’s doctors, nurses and older people. ... Sometimes when we get older, we’re not as strong, so we want to take care of them so they can be strong.”
Domingues said it’s also important to end on a positive simple note, “so we don't go down the road of, ‘What do you mean they’re weak, are they going to die?’”
To explain why kids are at the end of the line, Domingues said caregivers can explain that kids’ bodies are different, so scientists need to check how the vaccines work on kids first.
“But then focus on, ‘The great news is it’s here, that it’s starting,’” she said.
She also suggested using different talking points for younger and older kids. “For younger kids, you can keep it simple,” she said. “Say, ‘Kid bodies are really developing, things are changing; they know it works well for adult bodies, and they want to make sure it’s the same for kids.’”
For older kids, Domingues said caregivers can talk about the different phases of vaccines and how adults getting vaccinated is helping prevent the virus’ spread and create herd immunity.
It’s also important to remind kids that frontline workers need the vaccine first, she said.
“You can say, ‘There are people who are in hospitals, who are helping others, who aren’t able to stay home, but have to be outside with a lot of people, and we want to help them stay safe during this time,’” she said.
Caregivers could also explain the concept of making more vaccines by using the analogy of baking cookies, Pontillo said.
Kids might say, ‘Oh great, when can we do x-y-z?’ ... Talk to kids about how it will take a little time, we still have to wear masks and be safe for now until we continue to learn more.Dr. Janine Domingues, Child Mind Institute clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and mood disorders
“We don’t have a ton of it, the companies are making it, they’re making little batches like we make batches of cookies,” she said. Pontillo added that caregivers can explain that making enough vaccines is like making enough cookies for the whole neighborhood with only one oven. It can be done, but it takes time.
Emphasizing that kids are less likely to get sick is also helpful, Pontillo said.
Caregivers can tell kids “‘You don’t have to worry, you’re strong, your body is already strong and can fight off a lot right now,’ so you’re giving the sense of security they’re craving,” she said.
The important part is taking the worry out of their minds, she said.
If kids persist in saying they want the vaccine now, Pontillo said it can be helpful to remind kids that they’re lucky because they don’t need it the way older people do and say “I know you think you want it, but you’re lucky because you don't need it.’”
Reassure Kids that Things Are Getting Better Slowly
For families where parents have had the vaccine, Domingues said kids may be disappointed to learn that doesn’t mean things are automatically back to normal.
Pontillo echoed that kids may now be more impatient, but that’s to be expected.
“Kids might say, ‘Oh great, when can we do x-y-z?’” Domingues said. “Talk to kids about how it will take a little time, we still have to wear masks and be safe for now until we continue to learn more.”
She said that also means validating whatever kids’ responses might be emotionally. Kids are desperate to get back to normalcy, as we all are, she said. Caregivers can say, “This is frustrating [but] …. there’s a path to making things better.’”
Lastly, Pontillo suggested not dwelling on COVID-19 or the vaccines more than is necessary.
“You want to be making sure you’re providing enough information to be reassuring … but we don't want to make it the focus of our lives.”
She said you can decide first what a child would benefit from knowing, decide how much detail to provide, and then frame the discussion in a way that provides emotional security.
“And then move on, let it go, so it doesn’t become preoccupation,” she said.