After Nicole Brito, a nurse practitioner in Contra Costa County, California, got her COVID-19 vaccine, her six-year-old asked if she could get one, too. When Brito explained there wasn’t a vaccine for kids yet, her daughter seemed stressed. “Mommy, what if I get COVID?” she said, according to Brito. “Can’t I get the shot so I don’t get COVID? I don’t want to get sick.”
Brito consoled her by explaining the situation. “We talked about how scientists have to study the vaccine some more and that when it gets approved for kids, we’ll be sure to get her signed up,” Brito says. “But in the meantime, Mom and Dad were working on getting all the grown-ups in her life vaccinated so that we could keep her safe, too.”
As more adults line up to receive vaccines to protect them from COVID-19, one group will be left out: kids. None of the vaccines currently being deployed around the United States have been approved for people under 16. Both Pfizer and Moderna currently have clinical trials under way to verify the safety and efficacy of their formulas for kids as young as 12, and doctors expect a full pediatric rollout of vaccine distribution by the end of 2021.
In the meantime, some kids might be worrying about infecting others, catching the virus themselves, or feeling unworthy because they’ve been left out. But parents can help.
“Most kids we’ve talked to haven’t been very nervous,” says Vanessa LoBue, associate professor of psychology and the director of the Child Study Center at Rutgers University. “The ones who are could be worrying about family members dying, or they’re anxious that they’ll spread the virus to people they love because they have to wait for the vaccine.”
The mix of reassurance and information Brito provided is just what kids need, LoBue says. “If parents are freaking out and giving kids information that’s scary, they’re more likely to be scared. But if parents are acting rationally and sharing information about how vaccines are produced and distributed, kids will be a lot less freaked out.”
Why kids might be worried
Some kids—especially older ones whose lives have been more disrupted by the pandemic—could be more scared about the wait for the vaccine than others, LoBue says.
“Fear is a negative response to imminent threat,” she says. “In order to experience fear, you need to understand that something in your environment is threatening. So children's responses to COVID and the COVID vaccine are going to be linked to how well they understand what COVID is and how much of a threat it is.”
Kids who’ve had a direct experience with the disease, especially if they lost a family member or someone else close to them, could be more eager to get vaccinated, and so they might experience more anxiety while waiting for their turn.
“Kids learn to be afraid or anxious from three basic pathways,” LoBue says. “One is direct experience. The other two ways, the indirect pathways, are through verbal information and watching other peoples’ reactions.”
But it’s not simply learned behavior that causes kids to become anxious. Stuff is happening in the brain as well.
“What emotion looks like in the brain depends on what your brain is preparing for you to do,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University and an expert in the neuroscience of emotion. Preparing to respond to a threat triggers fight-or-flight responses in the brain. The nervous system gets ready to release hormones like adrenaline, which can make your heart race, priming your body to run fast, almost like revving your car’s engine before you speed off.
Anxiety is a bit more complicated. Some scientists think the frontal lobe—the part of the brain directly behind your eyebrows—is the center of your conscious thoughts. The amygdala, in the center of your brain, coordinates responses to emotions. Researchers speculate that anxiety happens when your emotional brain overpowers your thinking brain. That’s why our fears and anxieties can sometimes be irrational.
Helping kids deal with vaccine worries
If your kid is worried about waiting for the vaccine, they might not tell you immediately, LoBue says. If you’re concerned, watch their behavior for sudden changes. Having trouble sleeping, getting mad more easily, eating less than usual, or becoming easily distracted can all be symptoms of anxiety. But don’t fret if you notice these signs, LoBue says. Instead, reassure your kids like Brito did.
Controlling the information your kids take in is one of the best ways to help them cope with the seemingly ever-changing news about the vaccine, LoBue advises. How your children will react will depend on what information they get, from what sources, and how you are reacting to it.
Consider turning off the news in favor of informed, calm discussions about the vaccine rollout. Older children may have questions based on news they heard elsewhere. Your voice can be a reassuring reality check, LoBue says.
“It might help to have a conversation about germs, and how germs are transmitted from one person to another,” LoBue says. Remind them about the realities of COVID-19: that kids and teens catch and spread coronavirus at half the rate of adults, and that even when they do catch the virus, the majority of documented pediatric cases have been less severe.
You can also point out all the ways they’ve been keeping safe up until now, and remind them that just because they have to wait for the vaccine, they can still prevent catching and spreading the virus.
Talking about why it’s taking longer to develop a vaccine for children is important, too, LoBue says. Your kids could be thinking that they’re last in line because adults think they’re less important. Remind them that isn’t true. Tell them that children’s bodies might not react the same way to the vaccine as their parents’ do. Their vaccine is taking longer because scientists are taking the extra time to test vaccines on children to be sure they’re safe and effective for them specifically.
But facts aren’t the only solution to kids’ anxiety. For kids of all ages—and even for the other adults in your household—the best way to help them keep calm is to model it yourself, LoBue says. Your kids will learn how to act by following your lead. Panicking about your child waiting for the vaccine will make them panic, too.
Says LoBue: “Modeling calm responses and having open conversations about what’s happening, while letting your kids ask questions and answering them in a logical way, I think, can be really helpful.”