Starting with my daughter’s 5-year well child visit, I could see she wasn’t a fan of getting shots. At that appointment, she ran out of the exam room in an attempt to avoid getting her 5-year immunizations. Over the years after that, we had clues along the way that she and needles did not mix (unsuccessful experience getting ears pierced, refusing Novocain at the dentist).
When she was 10, I took my three children to get their flu shots. I watched as my other two kids sat and received theirs with no problem. And then I dealt with my daughter, whose anxiety escalated so much over getting the shot that we eventually left the office without her receiving the vaccine.
It was bad. She crossed her arms in front of her and covered her upper arms so the nurse couldn’t even use the alcohol swab to clean off her arm. My normally sweet, mild-mannered girl was first fearful, then upset, and finally fully defiant. I went from being sympathetic and encouraging to being bewildered, annoyed, and even angry. Both of us were in tears at one point. She tried earnestly to calm herself down, but she just couldn’t do it.
Fear vs. Phobia
That was the day I distinguished fear from pure terror. I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t resisting the shot to be difficult. She was absolutely terrified of the pain that it would cause, and she couldn’t get past that. It was after that appointment that I knew we needed help.
I spoke with our pediatrician first, calling this a fear of needles. I later changed my vocabulary to use the word phobia. Now I explain to people that my daughter has a severe needle phobia. I eventually decided to call the psychology department at Cincinnati Children’s. I discovered there’s a team of psychologists who specializes in these types of issues.
After our first appointment with the psychologist, I remember having hope. My daughter wasn’t the only one with this fear, and the psychologist had worked with other kids on this same thing.
Facing Her Fears
Therapy was a lot of work, both during our office visits as well as at home. Our appointments involved exposure therapy, where my daughter was exposed to a variety of elements related to needles that caused her anxiety. This type of evidence-based therapy provided through Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology is officially called “graded exposure and response prevention.” We started first simply talking about getting a shot. Slowly other items were introduced that my daughter found increasingly anxiety-invoking. This included looking at photos of needles, holding a syringe, and watching a video of someone getting a shot.
Each week my daughter faced these fears and found that a) they were not as scary when she actually went through each exposure, and b) she was able to get through each one successfully. Along the way, she learned coping techniques and we found distraction tools that worked best for her.
After three months of hard work, I am thrilled to report that last month my daughter successfully got through receiving two of her required 11-year immunizations. It took a lot of coaching on my part and a really understanding nurse at our pediatrician’s office, along with a lot of hard work by my daughter herself mentally getting through it. She cried and it was still really difficult, but,
WE DID IT.
I felt like we had climbed Mount Everest that day. At one point on this journey, I feared that she wouldn’t be able to get through receiving a shot ever. So this was huge for us. I am incredibly proud of my daughter. It takes so much emotionally and mentally to face a fear like that and overcome it. And she did it.
‘We Have What It Takes’
I now feel strongly that the next time she is faced with a needle, we both have what it takes to get through it. We’ve kept notes from our experience that we’ll use in the future. And our psychologist told us we can always come back in for an additional visit if my daughter feels she needs a bit more help before facing her next needle challenge.
If you’re the parent of a child who is fearful of needles and you’re Googling “needle phobia” (which is exactly what I did), know that you’re not alone. Fear levels vary widely, and it’s possible you can help get your fearful child through getting a shot without going to therapy. Talk to your pediatrician first. Ours was willing to do whatever it took to help my daughter be successful. That included allowing her to bring gum, a stress toy, essential oils, music and slime into the exam room. I don’t think my daughter will ever look forward to getting a shot (who does?!), but now we know we can do it — thanks to a wonderful psychologist. And a whole lot of slime.
Editor’s Note: In August 2021, we caught up with the author of this blog post to see how her daughter has been doing with her fear of needles. Kate told us that receiving vaccines are still a challenge for her now 14-year-old. But she was very happy to report that her daughter received two vaccines this summer without any tears and much more quickly than she’s ever gotten a shot before. They are both extremely pleased with the progress that she’s made since that difficult 5-year well child visit.