As the 2016-2017 influenza season gears up, it brings with it anxiety—among parents and kids alike—about receiving an annual flu shot. A must for preventing serious strains of influenza, receiving the vaccine can nonetheless trigger worry for some children. Natalie Kinsky, child life specialist, has spent her career helping Gillette patients cope with medical procedures through techniques like distraction therapy and relaxation activities. Here, Kinsky shares strategies for making “ouches” just a bit easier.

Give kids (some) control
Your child doesn’t have a choice about receiving the flu shot. But offering other kinds of choices can help him or her feel more empowered, explains Kinsky. Picking a favorite toy or stuffed animal to bring from home, playing with an iPad or tablet, or choosing which arm to receive the shot adds choice to the experience. Let your child choose their positioning too, whether it’s a cuddle (chest-to-chest) hold, sitting on your lap, or sitting in their wheelchair with you close by.

It’s also important to give your child the choice of watching or looking away during their shot. “As caregivers, we often default to ‘don’t watch!’ when for some children, it’s their way of maintaining control,” says Kinsky.

Words matter
For younger children, Kinsky suggests calling the shot a ‘pinch’ instead of a ‘poke’ or ‘bee sting.’ Focusing on the positive helps too. “Explain that the shot will help their body stay healthy over the winter, when there are lots of germs,” she advises. “Talk to them in language they can understand.”   

Words make a difference during and after your child’s vaccine, too. “Use phrases like ‘blow away the owwies, breathe’ instead of ‘just relax,’” says Kinsky. “After the shot, ask ‘how was that?’ instead of ‘that wasn’t so bad, was it?’”

Distractions can help
Distractions like blowing bubbles, blowing on a pinwheel or blowing out birthday candles can be effective for some children. As an added benefit, this technique helps encourage deep breathing, which promotes relaxation.

Be honest
Tell your child the truth about what’s happening, including what they’ll see (an alcohol wipe), what they will feel (a quick pinch), and the length of time the shot will take (just a few seconds). Afterward, tell your child that they might be sore in the arm where they received the shot—but that play and normal activity will help the pain go away more quickly. Consider giving your child a dose of ibuprofen or Tylenol to prevent discomfort.

Offer a special reward
Rewarding a child after a shot doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the toy store. “Maybe it’s a special outing or one-on-one time with a parent or relative,” suggests Kinsky. “Doing a favorite activity with a loved one can be even more meaningful to a child than a new toy.”

Meet children at their level
It’s important to approach children at a developmentally appropriate level when they’re receiving a vaccine, says Kinsky. “How you’d talk to a 2-year-old is very different than how you’d talk to a 15-year-old. This is especially true for children who have special needs. You know your child and their developmental level best.”

  • Infants respond to soft, soothing voices. Sucking a pacifier, swaddling (for some infants), or “shushing” sounds also provide comfort. 
  • Toddlers (1-3 years old) respond best to more parental involvement. Also consider toddlers a “job,” like holding a Band-Aid or toy, and asking them to squeeze your hand or count with you.
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old) can also help with a “job” and like having choices (“Which arm do you want your shot?” “Do you want to watch or look away?”). Tell your child how well they're doing and validate their feelings.
  •  School age children (5-12 years old) are curious about how things work. Explain the process step-by-step, if needed. Engaging the child in conversation, giving them a “job,” or distraction techniques can also help.  
  • Adolescents (13-18 years old) may want to be an active participant. Encourage your child to breathe deeply and encourage them to tell their nurse about special preferences—for example, if they want to count to three before receiving their shot.   

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