How to Talk to Your Kids About the COVID-19 Vaccines

Father and daughter sitting at table in discussion

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Key Takeaways

  • The rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines began in the U.S.
  • When they learn about these vaccines, kids may naturally think the pandemic is almost over.
  • We give answers to some of your kids' tough questions about the new vaccines.

As COVID-19 cases spike throughout the country and the nation prepares for what could be a tough winter, kids and parents alike have been eager for good news. The rolllout of the first COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. has sparked hope for many. With that hope, however, comes the need for parents to talk to their kids about the current state of the pandemic and, if need be, temper expectations of a quick return to normalcy.

The pandemic has been a scary and often confusing time. Despite the potential risks, most schools have maintained some form of in-person learning, if only part-time, while officials have urged folks to stay home for the holidays and avoid large groups if possible. Guidance has often been tough to track, even for adults. For kids, these conflicting events can be even more difficult to process. So how can we as parents explain all of this to our kids, who may be confused as to why they should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, even after vaccines are made available?

First, make no mistake: kids know a thing or two about shots. After all, most of us have been stressing the importance of routine vaccinations their whole lives. We’ve explained how shots can prevent people from contracting serious but preventable diseases. We’ve talked about how some shots happen infrequently while others are necessary to receive every year. So when kids hear this news about a COVID vaccine, there’s a good chance they’ll assume things are safer now and that the pandemic is coming to an end.

While this may be true on a cursory level, it’s simply not the case overall, says Ashley Wood, RN, BSN, contributor at Demystifying Your Health. “To get the vaccine distributed is going to be an undertaking like we’ve never seen before,” says Wood. “When talking to your kids about the COVID vaccine, it’s essential to go over why following safety protocols, like social distancing and mask-wearing, are still really important if we truly want to move past this pandemic. Since not everyone will be able to get a vaccine right away, these measures will help slow the spread of the virus.”

Below are some of the things kids may wonder when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, along with some strategies that could help parents talk to their kids about where things stand.

Is It Safe?

Without doubt, the COVID-19 vaccine has been pushed out faster than any vaccine in history. And while kids may not fully understand that, they’ve probably heard plenty of talk about it. “It’s important to share that while the development process has been quick, it has been done safely,” says Wood. “All possible measures have been taken to ensure that no harm will come to those who take it.”

Safety trials have still taken place, just on an accelerated timeline. What’s more, vaccines to treat similar strains of coronavirus have been in the works for many years, so even the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t an entirely new process.

How Long Will I Have to Wait?

This is a tough question to answer since there are many different factors to consider. The CDC has recommended that initial supplies of the vaccine be allocated to healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, followed by the following groups: 

  • Frontline essential workers
  • People aged 75 and older
  • People aged 65-74 years
  • People aged 16-64 years with underlying medical conditions
  • Other essential workers

Once there is more availability, the CDC will provide guidelines about who should be vaccinated next.

Additionally, it is only in the last couple months that clinical trials began testing the vaccine on children 12 and older. Until more trials and more data are available regarding the effects and efficacy of the vaccine on young children, kids will not be eligible to take a vaccine. If your child has no health concerns that could increase susceptibility to COVID symptoms, their wait may be even longer.

That’s a long time for pandemic-weary kids to wait, especially considering how eager most little ones are to enjoy friends, activities, and normal life again. This is where you can take the opportunity to talk about empathy and selflessness.

Ashley Wood, RN, BSN

When talking to your kids about the COVID vaccine, it’s essential to go over why following safety protocols, like social distancing and mask-wearing, are still really important if we truly want to move past this pandemic

— Ashley Wood, RN, BSN

Highlight how hard healthcare workers have had to work during the pandemic, and talk about how many have themselves gotten sick with COVID or put their families at risk. Discuss how they’ve worked double shifts with few breaks and watched lots of people struggle with the illness, often without their families by their side.

These workers, along with the elderly—who are most at risk of dying from COVID—clearly deserve to receive the vaccination first. Encourage your child to demonstrate a spirit of selflessness while they wait, putting others before themselves.

Will This End the Pandemic? 

Another loaded question, and a difficult one to answer. “We have to help our kids avoid getting their hopes up too much about the vaccine,” Wood says. “Even when a fully functional vaccine is successfully distributed to everyone who wants it, there will still be many people who will avoid it, and of course there may still be some margin of error,” she explains.

When talking to your kids about whether or not the COVID vaccine will end the pandemic, reassure them that it’s good news to be hopeful about, but also be realistic about the results as well.

You can even compare the situation to a time in the past when your kids had to wait for something they wanted, be it a new video game or the start of a family trip. Nobody likes to wait, but it's worth it for the reward at the end.

Will There Be Any Side Effects? 

There’s no need for kids to fear this. After all, any vaccine can have mild side effects, including ones your child has already received. While there have been reports of side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, most have been mild. But only time will tell whether kids face different or more severe side effects. It’s best to reassure your kids that any side effects likely won’t be much of an issue, especially if they’re otherwise healthy.

What This Means For You

When talking to your kids about these potentially successful COVID-19 vaccines, it's important to maintain a sense of hopeful patience. It's critical that kids understand these don't mean an immediate end to the pandemic, but that when paired with health measures like mask wearing, social distancing, and proper hand hygiene, they could help us get the spread of the virus under control.

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