Live and Learn: When Your Child’s Vaccines Go Badly


Talk about a royal tank.  Worse than a tank, actually, a royal disaster.  Maybe I jinxed it by blogging about it a few weeks ago.  Because my poor son has resolved to never, ever, set foot in the pediatrics office again.  That’s how badly his appointment for a flu shot went down.

In my time as a physician assistant, I worked in two different family practice settings.  In both, we provided vaccines to children.  Our medical assistants were skilled at giving multiple shots to even the most fearful of kids.  There wasn’t a swirl of activity and dialogue around “shot anxiety.”  The assistants went into the exam room and gave the shots.  Bam.  Done.  And the kids returned for the rest of their vaccines, no more afraid than the time before.

I think there’s a lesson here.

Shot anxiety is real, no doubt about it.  My son is terribly phobic when it comes to injections.  So panicked, that when it was his turn to get his flu vaccine, he bolted from the pediatrician’s office and left the building.  That’s how scared he was.  And talk about dangerous; in his heighten state, he could have fallen down the corridor stairs or been hit by a passing car in the parking lot.  And here I thought I had done everything I could to help him get ready for his shot:


I waited to tell him until that day, so his worrying wouldn’t interfere with school or his sleep.

He worked on relaxation techniques.

I told the receptionist in pediatrics that his vaccine needed done as quickly as possible, so he wouldn’t sit for 30 minutes in an exam room and panic.

How does the saying go?  “Even the best laid plans….”?

As much as I tried to make things go well for my son, I ended up making many mistakes that day.  I should not have said “shot anxiety” to the receptionist.  I should have said “No, thank you,” to the licensed counselor who came into our exam room, reassuring us she knew exactly what to do and say to help my son but clearly did not.  Not only did her platitudes draw out my son’s wait and further torture him, but she said the absolute worst thing she could have:

The shot won’t hurt a bit.

My son didn’t get his flu vaccine that day.  He went into panic mode and fled.  The next day I sat down with the director of the pediatrics clinic and, well, it wasn’t a terribly helpful conversation.  But the one thing that will always haunt me about our talk is the director’s opinion that:

You’re his mother, you should know what to do.

Wow, lady, why don’t you give that knife a twist after stabbing me in the heart?  I thought I was advocating for my son.  I gave him little time to worry by telling him only hours (not days) before his shot appointment.  He worked on relaxation techniques.  We had his iPod along in case he wanted some music to sooth him (he said, “No.”). I requested my son not wait half an hour in an exam room anticipating a stick in the arm and guess what?  That request was ignored.  Rather, someone came into the room saying she was trained to help, but instead put my son’s feelings front and center, even lying to him about his vaccine.

The director was right, absolutely right.  I should have known what to do.  And that involved remembering how we did shots in “the old days.”  With compassion, most certainly, but without the overwrought “feelings” part.  Because, at least in our family’s experience, talking about shot anxiety just makes my son feel those feelings more intensely.  And I knew that.  I told the staff in no uncertain terms, let’s do this thing.  Because that is exactly what we did in my day.  Professionally.  Staff acting in charge.

Bam.  Done.

But then I put my trust in someone else, and she blew it.  And my son has paid for it.

He is not just scared, he is terrified.  Shots occupy his thoughts as he lays down for sleep.  I had my own doctor’s appointment the other day, and he was certain he was getting his vaccine there.  He doesn’t trust his doctor’s office.  And he’s not vaccinated against influenza. And what’s worse?  I’m not sure he trusts me anymore.

The counselor who tried to help my son meant well.  And the mind-body connection is a real thing.  But vaccines must be approached in a way that doesn’t compromise what pediatricians and their staff do best:  care for the physical health of children.  My advice?  Just do the shots.  Don’t get tangled up in the feelings dialogue if it is part of your pediatrician’s office protocol.  If kids get the vibe a counselor is trying to “convince” them shots are ok, kids are going to think they have a choice whether to get them or not.  And it’s not a choice.  It’s a necessity.  As a parent, act like vaccines are not an option.  The nurse doing the shots, if he or she is good, will act the same; giving vaccines is all part of the job.  And kids will recognize that.  They still won’t like the “pokes” but that’s totally normal, it’s ok.  Not getting their vaccines is not.

(Oh, and another “my bad” that day?  Long sleeves.  It didn’t even occur to me how resistant my son would be to removing his arm from his shirt.  Mental note:  short sleeves.)


  • Heidi– I was not quite that terrified as a kid, but close. The thing that finally helped me was when I had to get a shot at the dentist’s office for a minor oral procedure. He made me close my eyes and said he was putting his thumb against the back of my front teeth. He then said he was going to press his thumbnail into the gum there and it might sting/pinch a little. It wasn’t until high school that I figured out that was him giving me a shot (I’m blonde that way🙄). Ever since then, I remind myself that it will pinch, but not more than a nail pressed into my skin. Maybe that will help your son. I feel for you!! It sounds like you had things as prepared as possible.

    • What a great strategy, Catherine! You know, I’ve always found shots at the dentist more scary than vaccines but dentists seem to have it down. My son had to get cavities filled twice and even on the second visit he didn’t panic about the injection. It must help he can’t see it coming, but the dentist completing downplays it and just gets it done. I like your visualization approach…and your courage. Thanks for your support…and it’s always good to hear from you!:)

  • Heidi, We went through the same thing here tonight. I took all the kids in for their flu shots and Sadie went into panic mode. She was ok up until it was her turn, then she freaked out. Luckily, our nurse was good, she did the injection very quickly…Bam. Done! The worst part for me was having to physically hold her down when she was obviously scared and wanted nothing more than to be comforted by her mother. I felt like I was betraying her in some way…if only she understood that I was doing what was truly best for her.

    • Hi, Rachael!

      Isn’t that the catch-22? Holding our kids down…I feel the same way. How was Sadie after her shot?

      I”m glad your nurse wasn’t deterred, shots really do need to be done quick, almost before kids know what hit them. They remember less about the shot, and aren’t so scared the next time around. It’s torture to remind them of their fear.

      So great to hear from you…hope everyone slept ok after their shots. Take care!

      • Sadie was absolutely fine after the shot…she just had trouble before the injection. We had our’s done in the pediatric department at the clinic, so I’m sure they are VERY used to dealing with kids and shots! All kids were fine afterwards except Simon. He has been throwing up…not sure if it’s a reaction to the shot or if he has a stomach bug 🙁

Copyright © 2016. All Rights Reserved by Pulse On Parenting | Website design by Sweet P Web.