Mental health at stake when parents disagree over vaccinating children

As major producers continue COVID-19 vaccine trials on children younger than age 12, some families are experiencing parental disagreement over whether to have their children immunized.

Psychologist Syras Derksen told CTV Morning Live that like any issue on which parents may differ, if handled carelessly, the vaccination question can lead to negative mental health outcomes for all involved, especially the children themselves. He said parents must work through the disagreement and come to some united front before they address the issue with kids.

“Children do really well in a secure environment, when they feel they can know what to expect and that their parents are on the same side. When parents disagree strongly, it creates anxiety. For mental health, for anxiety, for depression, for good behaviour, for being able to trust future relationships, it’s good to model discussion and potentially disagreement, but not strong disagreements, poor behaviour or fighting,” Derksen said.

Derksen advocates using some familiar conflict resolution strategies for working through whether children should get the COVID shot. He said being a good listener and trying to keep an open mind are proven pathways to meaningful discussion.

“What that entails is listening to an opinion you don’t like and being patient with it, repeating it back to the other person and making them really feel that you’re trying to understand them,” said Derksen.

Derksen also suggested that waiting until the other person has had time to process your position before entering discussions might be productive. He acknowledged that when it comes to the COVID vaccine, as the start of school looms in September, the decision whether to vaccinate takes on an urgency, but with time can also come a new perspective.

“One thing you can expect is that disagreement or different opinions about vaccinations in July, this month, will be a different reality in September, that’ll be a different thing if people are disagreeing, then it will be different again in December. Sometimes agreement will come from just waiting,” Derksen said.

Derksen said it may be valuable to bring the child’s physician into the discussion and that people often consult professionals when they’re in trouble or when they can’t agree. Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine implementation task force, is one professional who has been addressing concerns about vaccines in her public statements and community outreach efforts.

“They (COVID-19 vaccines) were approved, and they were shown to be safe and effective. In the same way as other vaccines, the science behind these vaccines is solid,” Reimer said in a news conference Wednesday.

Reimer said both Pfizer and Moderna are now working on trials for children aged six months to eleven years. She said results for the five to eleven-year-old age group may come out in September and that based on those results, manufacturers would then seek Health Canada approval. Reimer also said while an exact date is not yet available, Health Canada imay approve a second vaccine, Moderna, for the 12 to 17 age group before the start of the school year.  

Derksen said disagreements are part of life, but before becoming stuck in them, people should ask themselves whether they’re worth disrupting or potentially destroying a relationship.

“People get into arguments, they become closed and defensive and they’re not generally open to changing their opinion. You want to create an environment that’s creative and cooperative.

Hopefully, that will create a discussion where you can kind of talk about what your feelings are,” Derksen said.

-With files from CTV’s Nicole Dubé and Kayla Rosen