First, sit down and have a conversation with your child about it. Hear them out about all of their fears, concerns, experiences and feelings. It is always important to validate their feelings by saying something like “It sounds like you’re worried it’s going to hurt”. When they feel heard and understood, they will be much more open to what you have to say next. A thought to keep in mind: Have you ever been stressed about something that was alleviated because someone said, “Don’t worry about it”? I’m guessing the answer is no, and it’ll be the same for our children too. Their worries are real, and parents must acknowledge that if they are going to be open to what you say next. Once they have shared all of their worries and feelings about it and you have validated them, you can explain the purpose of the shot, in an age appropriate way. For a four year old, this may be something like “we get shots to keep our bodies safe from germs” and for a ten year old, “we deal with a moment of discomfort so that we can prevent a week of feeling horrible”.
Next, let them know there are many different tricks for feeling better about the shot. You can go over the list of calming strategies below with them and they can decide which ones they’d like to use leading up to the shot and which ones for the actual time of the shot. Giving them all of the information and letting them choose which ones to try gives them the control they may need. Sometimes just going over these options with the child lets them feel in control of the situation and that alone reduces the anxiety. (For the sake of brevity, I am leaving out the science behind these, but upon request, I would be happy to share exactly how and why these strategies work.)
- Deep Muscle Relaxation: tighten up all your muscles and hold for one minute. Slowly relax the muscles and everything feels calm. This is especially helpful because the more the muscle is relaxed, the less discomfort there will be from the shot.
- Take deep belly breaths. A belly breath is slowly breathing in the nose until the belly puffs out, then exhaling out of the mouth slowly until all the air is out. You can practice these with bubbles. The slower and longer you exhale out, the bigger the bubbles will be.
- Bring something that has a preferred and calming scent such as play-doh or an essential oil.
- Count something in the room such as how many tiles are on the floor or ceiling.
- Bring earbuds and listen to music or an audio book.
- Bring a favorite comfort object or a special new toy to hold.
- Magic Moustache: press the side of your forefinger against your upper lip and press your thumb under your chin. (Your hand forms a “C” shape.)
- The parent can tap or squeeze alternating shoulders to calm the child’s system. Think of patting a baby’s back but quickly alternate between left and right sides of the body.
- Engage the child in a guided meditation in the car on the way to the appointment. There are many apps and online recordings to use.
- Create a list with the child of past times the child was very worried about something but the situation turned out just fine.
- Think of a very special and happy moment. Visualize that during the appointment. The child can also draw a picture of this happy moment and bring it to the appointment.
- Have a fun plan following the appointment to look forward to. Let the child choose this ahead of time.
- The child can draw a picture of how they are using the chosen strategies.
- Does the child have any other ideas? They may come up with something even better!
Finally, play it out. This can be a role play for an older child and using toys for a younger child. You can guide the first time around to show them what it would be like and what you will do right after the shot. Then, allow the child to lead the play. The child may want to “give the shot” to a stuffed animal or to a parent multiple times before the appointment. Children process and learn through play, so this will give them the opportunity to work through what their amazing brains are needing.
Always leave opportunity for the child to ask questions and do your best to be honest in an age appropriate way.