The last time I was at the paediatrician’s office, my germy toddler was chatting up (read: jabbering nonsensically, with the odd coherent word) the four-year-old sitting beside her. The little girl looked completely green, and I kept trying to get Juliette to sit on my lap and leave the poor wee thing alone. She clearly wasn’t feeling well. But at some point, her mother leaned over, patted her knee and said, “It’s not going to be that bad. I know you can be brave, like we talked about.”
The little girl burst into tears. She gave her mother the dirtiest look I’ve ever seen on a kid that small and said, “But you told me my arm might swell up and there could be a bruise!” The mom looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. I gave her that smile of solidarity I always want from other moms, when I’m in the tantrumming-kid hot seat. But the conversation also made me think about the way I handle needles with my own kindergartener. I’m of the “If I don’t make a big deal about it, she won’t” school of thought, I suppose, because while I forewarn her that the vaccination or blood-draw is a possibility, I don’t explain much more. The longer I dwell on the upcoming “ouchie,” the more freaked out she gets.
This isn’t unique to my kid, according to a new study out of Toronto’s York University and the Opportunities to Understand Childhood Hurt (OUCH) lab. Psychology professor Rebecca Pillai Riddell and her colleagues looked into which factors contributed to a preschooler’s anxiety when facing the pain of a vaccination, as well as their perception of the pain itself, and identified past and continuing behaviour of the parent as a major driver. In other words: the things you do and say when your kid is getting his vaccinations as a baby and a preschooler appear to affect how scared he is when he gets needles as a preschooler. “This study is the first to establish…that caregiver behaviour during vaccination from the first year of life and at the preschool age are both associated with pain-related anticipatory distress at preschool—significantly more than the child’s own behaviours,” say the study’s authors.
The study, which will be published in the journal Pain this fall, observed 202 parents in the Greater Toronto Area and 130 kids between four and five years of age, in an effort to link pain regulation to mental health outcomes, and to get at the root of needle fears. The researchers observed how kids behaved before and after their needles when they were infants and preschoolers, and how parents interacted with their kids, and the types of things they said. The findings suggest that the preschooler’s fear of needles before the shot may lead to more distress after the shot and a tendency to avoid future medical procedures.
The researchers do note, however, that the study did not account for the fact that temperament and preexisting mental illness may be important predisposing factors when kids are freaked out by needles.
The bottom line? Moms and Dads who experience anxiety around needles and medical procedures run the risk of passing that anxiety on to their children. Interventions are necessary for parents to learn to (positively) support and coach their kids through painful medical procedures from day one. And maybe this is just it: I have never been afraid of needles, so I don’t see the need to discuss it at length. But for someone who really is terrified of being poked, I’m sure it’s difficult to keep his or her feelings in check.