- Parents who disagree over whether their children should get vaccinated against COVID-19 face a serious dilemma.
- To help resolve the issue, experts recommend each parent draw up a list of pros and cons on their position and reflect on how past disagreements were solved.
- They add that a child over age 12 should be consulted.
- If all else fails, they recommend talking with a medical professional, clergy member, family friend, or close friend.
When COVID-19 vaccinations became available for children 12 to 17 years old, Susanna was overjoyed.
Ready to help her children move past masking and to move past her own anxiety, she told her husband she’d be booking their appointments.
That’s when things went south.
“He’s completely against it,” Susanna told Healthline. “He is, as our youngest child likes to say, ‘radicalized.’ He spends most of his time reading right-leaning sources, and it just snowballed.”
In Ohio, Selina Silvey-Gibson found herself on the other side of that coin.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, I was quite skeptical (about vaccinating her children),” she told Healthline. “It’s not a ‘the government is going to track us with this’ thing for me. It’s more the speed the approval came.”
When she told her husband she did not want to vaccinate their children, “We argued. He was at ‘we want this,’ and I was at ‘no way in hell,’” Silvey-Gibson said.
What happens when two parents disagree on whether to give their child the COVID-19 vaccine?
It’s challenging now that children age 12 and older can be vaccinated, with even younger children’s eligibility looming on the horizon.
In fairness, says Robin T. Hornstein, PhD, clinical director at Hornstein, Platt & Associates in Pennsylvania, this has been a confusing time.
“What do we want to do the most as parents? Protect our children. This has turned decision-making (around that) on its ear,” she told Healthline.
The pandemic, Hornstein says, was a circumstance that forced people who usually agree on things – or trust one another make parenting decisions without much input from the other – into difficult situations.
Add to that the politically charged banter around vaccines and you can see how things could break down.
Susanna’s husband has always been a strongly right-leaning Republican, she said, but it never impacted their lives in as direct a way as this.
“I have reams of data I share with him (about vaccines), and he just says it’s all ‘liberal propaganda,” said Susanna, which is not her real name.
Their history as a family is a common one: Susanna has always handled all the medical planning, scheduling, and decision-making.
In the past, her husband had never asked about or questioned a vaccine — and her children have had all the required childhood shots.
Then, said Hornstein, you add in another key emotion that’s been ramped up for everyone this past year: Fear.
That’s what got Silvey-Gibson stuck.
“I spent weeks and weeks researching (the vaccine),” she said. “My biggest takeaway was fear. Fear that in 15 years, we’d be watching commercials on TV with lawyers saying, ‘Were you injured from the COVID vaccines of 2021? Call us.’”
So what’s a determined, caring yet head-butting team of parents to do?
After all, compromise isn’t a choice here, since a vaccine is either given or not given.
“The best first thing you can do is take a step back and calm down yourself,” Dr. Luis Manuel Sandoval, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California, told Healthline. “Tensions are running high everywhere and in a lot of ways.”
A good first step, he suggests, is finding common ground.
“Remind yourself: We are a family, and we are going to stick together through this,” Sandoval said. “That can be a powerful first step.”
Some other actions to consider:
Make a list: As simple as it sounds, Sandoval said, having each parent make a list of their pros and cons around the vaccine is a calm way to begin looking for common ground and a way for each parent to help the other consider their point of view.
“You will think more clearly and not go off the cuff (and roam into argument territory),” he said.
Get to the core of the issue: Hornstein suggests parents initially remove the question of doing the shot and dig into their fears via an honest conversation about the things you fear involving your children.
That, she said, can humanize the situation rather than just make it more stressful.
That’s what Silvey-Gibson said her husband did.
“After the arguing, he came to me with a level head,” she said. “He heard me and validated my feelings, too, and that was important to me.”
Draw on the past: True, we’ve never been in a pandemic before. But, Hornstein notes, most parents — be they married or divorced, strong co-parents or not so strong — have had to make serious decisions together in the past.
“Look back on the stressful decisions you’ve made together and on how you got there,” she said. “Try to find a place you found common ground, even in a situation before parenting, and draw from it.”
Involve the child: Depending on the age (and at 12 and older approved for the vaccine now, most agree that’s an appropriate age), ask the child their feelings on the vaccine.
“Their opinion should count here,” said Hornstein.
She pointed to things like wanting a summer job that may require vaccines, wanting to go to camp, and wanting to feel safe and comfortable with their friends as reasons for a child wanting a vaccination.
This is also the chance that you’ll need to listen to a child who may fear the shot.
Susanna asked her husband to sit down with them all and explain his hesitancy. They want the vaccine, she said, but are trying – with her – to help him move toward that.
Hornstein said that in some states, children 14 and older can get the vaccine without parental permission.
It was doing this, Silvey-Gibson said, that helped her move to “yes.”
“When she came to me and said, ‘I want to go back to school. I want to see my friends. I want my life back,’ I had to listen.”
Seek help: Therapy is always a positive step, Hornstein said, and it does not always even have to come from a professional.
“Call in clergy, friends you trust, family, a therapist. Whoever works best for you,” she said.
Don’t tap people simply because they’re on your side, she adds.
“It feels like someone has to win and someone has to lose, but that should not be how it resolves,” Hornstein said.
“The solution has to come from an answer without fear.”
Silvey-Gibson changed her mind, she said, thanks to both her husband’s calming demeanor and her child’s point of view.
“When he said, ‘I understand you are scared, but let’s think about this long term,’ and mapped that out with me, it really helped,” she said.
“I would tell parents in this situation to listen to their child with an open mind,” she added. “That really helped me.”
Susanna’s struggle continues.
Her next step is one both experts stressed: Call the pediatrician for some answers.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to rush, so I’m sitting on it for a while,” she said.
Since her husband agreed to speak with the pediatrician and one of their child’s medical experts, she has some hope.
But she also has a backup plan:
“If push comes to shove, I’ll take things into my own hands,” she said. “I got vaccinated myself, and he wasn’t thrilled. I’m hoping I don’t have to make that decision with the kids without him.”