Navigating friendships and vaccines – Boston Children's Answers – Boston Children's Discoveries

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With kids finally back at school and other activities after more than a year, many families now find themselves facing yet another chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic: contending with those who don’t share their views on getting vaccinated.
We spoke with Erica Lee, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital, about navigating this new territory.
“Vaccines have been a polarizing topic for families,” Lee says. “We’re all living in a time of greater uncertainty and fear, which only increases anxiety around decisions like whether to get vaccinated. People have strong opinions about its pros and cons, and it can be particularly stressful when you disagree with family or friends about how to stay safe.”
With this in mind, Lee suggests approaching relationships with those unwilling to vaccinate with an understanding of their decision, confidence in yours, and boundaries to balance the difference. To help, she offers these suggestions:

“Every individual and family have their own set of risk factors [for COVID 19], as well as their own risk tolerance,” Lee says.
Here, risk tolerance refers to the level of comfort a person has in putting themselves in situations that could expose them to COVID-19. This can include being indoors without a mask, attending crowded gatherings, or not getting vaccinated. The risk tolerance spectrum varies widely among people so Lee encourages families to discuss and establish a collective tolerance and then get comfortable communicating it to others.
“It’s not only important to understand your risk tolerance, but it’s helpful to remember you can be honest if it’s different from others’,” Lee says. “Though it might feel awkward, having conversations about the safety of your kids can help get everyone on the same page.”
Here’s how she suggests doing that:

“Just as you’ve likely thought through why you wanted to get vaccinated or why you wanted your kids to get vaccinated, your child’s friend or family member likely thought through why they don’t,” says Lee.
Lee adds that it’s important to remember that while you may not agree with the other person, you’re probably going to have a more productive conversation and maintain a more amicable relationship if you try to approach their perspective with genuine interest.
“Though your instinct might be to say, ‘How can you not see the facts? Do you not trust science?’, ask yourself, ‘How would this be helpful or effective if I want to continue the relationship?’” Lee advises. “No one wants to be told that their beliefs, decisions, or parenting choices are wrong. If anything, hearing arguments against our view makes us work harder to defend it.”
No one wants to be told that their beliefs, decisions, or parenting choices are wrong. If anything, hearing arguments against our view makes us work harder to defend it.

If you are going to share the factual information you have, Lee advises, leave it as that — information. You most likely can’t change their mind; that’s something they have to do on their own. But when you show that you genuinely want to understand their perspective, that may make them want to genuinely understand yours, even if you disagree.

Another approach to conversations about vaccines is to choose NOT have them. Just be sure to respectfully communicate this approach as well as any other boundaries you establish and help your kids do the same.
“Remind your kids that they can still maintain friendships with peers who may be unvaccinated or whose families are. How you spend time together may just be different for a while,” Lee says.
Lee suggests helping your kids find ways to show their friends that they’re not rejecting or excluding them by expressing they want to spend time together safely. Ideas include finding socially distanced activities, like walks, bike rides, or Zoom calls or hangouts. Kids can also send cards, texts, or video messages to show their friends how much their friendship means to them and that their boundaries aren’t personal.
If the friend does get upset, try reminding your child that every family makes their own decisions, and yours has chosen to do what’s best for your own physical and mental health.
“It might be uncomfortable at first,” Lee says, “but know that the right decision for you is the one that prioritizes your family’s well-being. Whether or not others agree with that decision is beyond your control.”
See more COVID-19 parenting resources.
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