How To Talk To Parents Who Choose Not To Vaccinate Their Kids

When dealing with friends or family with COVID-19 vaccination doubts, go for empathy — and pick your battles.
Talking to parents who are making different COVID-19 vaccine-related decisions isn't easy. Here are some best practices to keep in mind.
Talking to parents who are making different COVID-19 vaccine-related decisions isn't easy. Here are some best practices to keep in mind.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, vaccination isn’t just a hypothetical for a lot of parents; it is now a real option for children ages 12 and up, and many parents have jumped at the chance. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, more than 600,000 kids between 12 and 15 received the Pfizer vaccine in the first week it was available.

And experts also now believe that by the start of the new school year in the fall, younger children could be eligible for vaccination as well.

But there have been — and will continue be — a lot of parents who opt out. In one recent survey, 25% of parents said they have no intention of getting their children vaccinated, while another 18% said they’d do it only if their children’s school requires it. (It remains unclear whether schools legally can.)

As we enter this next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout to children, parents will need to start having conversations with each other about what their plans are — and disagreements will certainly arise. So HuffPost Parents asked pediatricians who are experienced in having conversations with vaccine-hesitant parents and caregivers about some best practices to keep in mind.

First and foremost: Know it’s totally OK to ask parents their vaccination plans.

“I really want to empower parents to ask,” said Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician with Columbia University in New York. “I think sometimes we don’t want to say the wrong thing or hurt people’s feelings, but when you’re talking about your child’s health — especially if they’re going to be in a place where they’re exposed to other people for a prolonged period of time, like summer camp or a sleepover — it is absolutely OK to ask.”

Keep it simple. Something like: “What have you decided for your family about vaccines?” is a good way in, Bracho-Sanchez said. Or even just “is your family vaccinated?” And “are you going to get vaccinated?” she recommended.

Remember: Other people’s vaccination decisions have a direct impact on your own family’s health. Even if you’re vaccinated and you have an adolescent who is also vaccinated, you might have a younger child at home who could still be exposed.

“If you are asking from a place of caring and curiosity, that sets the tone and you very rarely can go wrong,” said Bracho-Sanchez.

Strive for empathy.

If you are eager to get your own child vaccinated against COVID-19, you might find it mind-blowing (or worse) to realize a fellow parent you like and respect has other thoughts.

But remember: “Keeping empathy at the forefront of our conversations with others is essential,” said pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin, who runs the popular Instagram account Advice I Give My Friends and authored the recent book “Parenting in a Pandemic.”

“All parents have had a rough year, and many who are hesitant to get vaccinated immediately may feel scared,” she said.

And indeed it does look as though there is a sizable group of parents — about 25% — who say they just really want to wait and see how the vaccine is working beyond the initial clinical trials.

“Excessive pressure can backfire and lead individuals to really cement in their decisions,” Fradin warned. “A few more months of data and millions of kids doing well following vaccination may be all the evidence these individuals need to jump on the bandwagon.”

Share why you’re vaccinating your own kid.

Research has shown that a factor that can actually help sway vaccine-hesitant parents are conversations with people they trust, particularly pediatricians, but also friends and family.

“If you are choosing to vaccinate and others around you aren’t, share your reasoning and your confidence,” Fradin urged — though she warned parents to avoid the tendency to be overly “instructive.”

Fradin said she is hearing from a lot of parents who are worried that COVID-19 vaccines are being pushed on their children only to help achieve herd immunity. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have really pushed back on the idea that vaccinating kids is only about the greater good, emphasizing that there are real benefits to individual children. “While fewer children than adults have suffered the most severe disease, this is not a benign disease in children,” the president of the AAP said in a recent statement.

“Children will reap substantial direct benefits from vaccination,” echoed Fradin — not least of which is that they’ll be able to go mask-free in many settings and resume a lot of their normal activities.

Personalizing all of this, and talking about why you believe the COVID-19 vaccine will help your own child, might make fellow parents think of the potential benefits to their own kid. Studies show, for example, that when pediatricians talk to vaccine hesitant parents, those parents are most swayed by doctors’ personal beliefs and experiences — like telling patients that they’ve had all their own children immunized. Personalizing all of this can be powerful.

Brush up on some basic facts.

Before you have a conversation with another parent about COVID-19 vaccines, it’s a good idea to do a little planning.

“Think ahead to have some way to respond to whatever you hear,” Bracho-Sanchez said.

Maybe study up on some of the most common myths surrounding kids and COVID-19 vaccination that might be putting parents off, like unfounded fears about future fertility or that the vaccine is dangerous to kids.

“The most common message I hear from parents is it feels too soon or rushed,” Fradin said.

To those parents, the term “warp speed” suggests the process was shortened in a way that sacrificed safety, and they’re simply frightened the vaccine could hurt their kids.

Again, this is where curiosity, empathy and some basic knowledge can be really helpful. (The websites of the AAP and CDC are great sources of information.)

Ultimately, remember: It’s not your responsibility to try to convince other parents, and research suggests that pediatricians (i.e., probably not you!) really are the single most important factor in getting parents to accept vaccines. So pick your battles, then do what you need to do to keep your own child healthy and safe.