Ask your child if they want the COVID-19 vaccine before booking an appointment, experts say

TORONTO — While Canadian health authorities have approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages 12 and up, experts say parents shouldn’t assume their child wants the jab.

Dr. Kathryn Birnie, a clinical child psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary, told CTVNews.ca that children may be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine and says parents need to address those concerns before booking them an appointment.

“One of the things we can do as parents is to ask about what their concerns are,” Birnie said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “Having a conversation helps to understand where they’re coming from, and understand what those concerns are.”

Birnie said teenagers may be hesitant to get the jab for some of the same reasons that adults are, including possible side effects after vaccination, the unknown long-term effects, fears over needles, and concerns around the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

She added that having these concerns is expected with a new vaccine.

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) provided an update earlier this month recommending children 12 and up be given the same two-dose regimen of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as adults.

The recommendation is endorsed by the Canadian Pediatric Society and further detailed in the organization’s COVID-19 vaccine guidance for children.

NACI’s updated recommendations were based on Health Canada’s authorization following the results of Pfizer-BioNTech’s Phase 3 clinical trial involving 2,260 adolescents aged 12 to 15.

Conducted in the United States, the trial found the vaccine to be 100 per cent effective in children aged 12 to 15, up from the 95 per cent efficacy shown after the second shot in the trials with older age groups.

Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said on May 5 that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has been thoroughly reviewed and is safe for use in the younger age group.

“While younger people are less likely to experience serious cases of COVID-19, having access to a safe and effective vaccine will help control the disease’s spread to their family and friends, some of whom may be at higher risk of complications,” Sharma said.

“It will also support the return to a more normal life for our children who have had such a hard time over the past year,” she added.

In an effort to address youth vaccine hesitancy, Birnie said it is important for parents to validate their child’s concerns.

“Sometimes we can get caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong… when in reality a good place to start is validating that it makes sense that teens might have concerns about the vaccine — that’s understandable,” Birnie said.

Birnie said adolescents generally have autonomy when it comes to their own medical decisions, including vaccinations.

However, she says some of their worries around the COVID-19 vaccine may be overestimated.

“When we have fears, we can be more likely to think they will happen to us, even when the risk is actually really, really low,” Birnie said. “We can overestimate the potential consequences to ourselves, especially when we see those stories or events that are rare.”

Birnie said it is important for parents to address these concerns by providing “accurate, reliable information” to their children so they can make an informed decision for themselves on whether to get vaccinated.

“Actually talk about what this might mean for the teen’s life. Talk about the concerns, but also talk about what are the benefits to the teen and their life and their experience in their community and their family would be in terms of getting vaccinated,” she said.

A necessary part of the conversation, Birnie said, is also highlighting potential repercussions the teen may face in they choose not to get vaccinated, such as potentially being excluded from certain sports or activities and not being able to visit certain places.

HOW TO ADDRESS VACCINE HESITANCY IN YOUTH

Out of respect, Toronto-based parenting expert Alyson Schafer says parents should consult their children about the decisions that impact their bodies and lives. She told CTVNews.ca on Thursday that parents also need to ensure they’re providing accurate information for children to make those decisions.

“They need to be apprised of the things that are going to impact their lives. So it’s just basic respect to making sure that they have accurate information and not misinformation,” Schafer said in a telephone interview.

With more access to the internet, Schafer said children may be seeing a greater amount of vaccine misinformation online that is contributing to their hesitancy.

She said parents should be “constantly” talking to their kids about what they’re seeing online, as well as discussing how social media algorithms work. Schafer said this will help make children more aware of how misinformation may be targeted towards them.

When talking about vaccine hesitancy with one’s children, Schafer said the conversation should be age appropriate and the tone needs to be non-judgemental. If the parents are struggling with what to say, she says they can also consult their family doctor for advice.

Rather than trying to control the conversation, Schafer said it is important for parents to “deeply listen” to their child’s concerns to better understand what’s going through their mind and then tailor the conversation to their needs.

“When we can stand back and listen and make space for the child to speak to what their concerns are, then we have a far greater chance of using our influence and the power of our strong relationship with our kids to be able to either correct that misinformation or reassure them from their fear and anxiety,” she explained.

Schafer says it may take time to address a child’s vaccine hesitancy, and tells parents not to get discouraged if multiple conversations are needed before a child decides to get the shot.

However, talking about vaccine hesitancy may not be enough.

Cha Cha Yang, a Harvard University graduate from Ontario who is working to fight vaccine hesitancy among youth through peer-to-peer education, told CTVNews.ca that referring back to previous experiences with vaccines, such as influenza, measles or smallpox, may be a reminder some kids need.

“Children have been getting vaccines since they were born essentially, and depending on how old the child is, they might remember them,” Yang said on Wednesday.

“These are experiences that I think we can pull from to tell the child that this vaccine is not that different from the vaccines that [they]’ve gotten previously,” she added.

Yang said it may also be beneficial for parents to employ a role model — either a friend, family member, or teacher who has been vaccinated — to talk to their children about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

“Bringing in somebody who’s a little bit closer to age with them, that links back to… the importance of conveying information from somebody who the person can trust and the person can relate to,” Yang said.

Yang said peers can have a powerful impact on the development of a child’s decision-making skills, and sharing positive experiences getting the COVID-19 vaccine can convince others to do the same.

With a file from CTVNews.ca’s Jeremiah Rodriguez

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