Q: Our 13-year-old daughter has always been afraid of needles. When she got the chicken pox vaccine, she screamed and hid under the exam table, but eventually agreed to have the shot. As a result of that shot, she developed the skin infection cellulitis and now will not consent to get the HPV vaccine. She has even refused to have a dental filling, and the cavity has become so large she needs a root canal.
A: The majority of children experience significant fears while growing up. If these fears persist, become irrational and disrupt normal behaviours, they are called phobias, and the feared object (or even thinking about that object) can trigger tummy aches, headaches, breathing problems and other physical complaints. It’s called the fight-or-flight response, and most of us have encountered it in our lives. But your daughter’s phobia is affecting her health, so it needs to be addressed.
Your family doctor can put you in contact with a specialist in desensitization and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, which can help your daughter learn to cope with her fear of needles. The therapist will gradually introduce the thought of a needle: first maybe just imagining one, then seeing a picture, then having a wrapped needle in the room. She’ll also be taught relaxation techniques to use when she begins to feel panicky during these sessions, and taught to understand how her thoughts are making her fearful. For example, she may believe that every time she gets a shot she will contract cellulitis; the sessions will help her learn that although this is a possible complication, it is very rare.
The coping skills your daughter will learn through this kind of therapy will help her throughout life. Maybe I’ll even meet her in medical school someday!