Vaccine-Hesitant Teens--What You Should Know About Their Brains

What Pro-Vaxx Parents Should Know If They Have A Vaccine-Hesitant Teen

November 11, 2021 Updated November 15, 2021

Close up of arm of boy getting vaccinated by doctor holding a needle.
Cavan Images/Getty

The pandemic has introduced us to a scad of problems and controversies that I’m not sure anyone anticipated. Which makes sense, I guess, since no one actually anticipated a worldwide, multi-year pandemic. There is bedlam over should-be-non-issues like masks and observing a six-foot gap, ivermectin and injecting bleach. And now, with a vaccine introduced–which seems like “the answer” to many of us — we are facing a whole new set of conflicts. Who expected a hospital maternity ward to shut down, when dozens of staffers chose to resign instead of getting the Covid vaccine? Or a hostess being assaulted (by a group of three diners) for simply asking for proof of vaccination? At the same time, often under the radar, is a (thankfully) non-violent push-pull within the microcosm of the family, where war rages over the vaccine. And one of these battles is the clash between the pro-vax parent and their vaccine-hesitant teen.

The anti-vax rallies in my capital city were a sight to behold. Hundreds of parents marched holding “my body my choice” signs. For the kids, the rally organizers provided face painting, clowns, and a strange-for-that-outside-temperature dunk tank. I am not sure how many children were there to protect their right to body autonomy; my guess is that the promise of free popcorn did the trick. After an afternoon of festivities, these kids, if ever vaccine-hesitant, were definitely no longer full-blown resisters. The outcome was anti-vax parents flanked by anti-vax elementary schoolers — a bane to the rest of us, but probably a nice way to keep harmony within the family.

Finding common ground with an older child might be a little more difficult since, very often, a parent’s stance on anything is at odds with their teen’s. Sometimes, though, it’s not just stubbornness that drives a teen’s rebellion against their parent. Aaron Williams (a pseudonym), a 16-year-old pro-vaxxer, tells The New Yorker’s David Remnick of his conflict with his anti-vaxxer parents:

“We were in the living room, watching TV, and Dr. Fauci was giving a sort of speech and explaining why the vaccine is safe and now it’s available to most people and you should go get it. As soon as he said that, my mom immediately said, ‘I don’t trust that,’ and she showed me some Facebook screenshot of someone saying that it alters your genes and it’s unsafe.…” The teen did his own research (which indicated that his mother’s social media investigation was off-base) and things escalated from there. The Williamses original “let’s wait and see attitude” hardened into forbidding the 16-year-old from ever getting vaccinated–and that was the beginning of many arguments.

Aaron’s story seems to be a common narrative these days. What you don’t hear about as often is the pro-vax parent scuffling with the vaccine-hesitant teen. Opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum views put a strain on the parent-child relationships in any case. In this particular case, we’re not talking about quibbling over a nose piercing or wearing shorts in the winter. When we’re considering a vaccine-hesitant teen, the stakes are much higher.

At first, Covid seemed to primarily affect older adults and those with pre-existing conditions. As we’ve learned more about the virus and its variants, however, we have watched it bob and weave and target our children. Our pro-vax parents, easily, see eye to eye with Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Director Dr. Peter Marks: “No parent should have to lose their child to a vaccine-preventable illness if we have a vaccine that can be deployed that is safe and effective.” 

But what are you supposed to do when you are contending with a vaccine-hesitant teen who is thwarting your efforts?  This inability to protect one’s own child must be infuriating — and heartbreaking.

However, many teens have their reasons for being less than eager — though pro-vax parents might not agree with, understand, or like them.

Needles And The Vaccine-Hesitant Teen

Many people are comfortable discounting what they see as “irrational fears.” But, phobias are very real — and trypanophobia is one of them. Pharmacist Anna Taddio, speaking to NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, considers the fear of needles to be one cause of vaccine hesitancy. “It can be so severe and definitely can be a reason why someone decides not to get the needle,” she says. “So in the grander scheme of things, it is a barrier to vaccination.”

(To address trypanophobia, Taddio suggests using the CARD system, which is outlined in her interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “How To Help Kids With Needle Fears When They Get The COVID-19 Vaccine.”)

Invincibility And The Vaccine-Hesitant Teen

It is difficult for adults to remember exactly how their brains worked as pre-adults, but I think many of us can admit that we did ridiculously risky things like walking on train tracks or driving waaaay over the speed limit. In essence, we did not have much of a sense of our own mortality–exactly like today’s teens. Gary Wenk Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, blames teenagers’ lacking judgment on the fact that their frontal lobes are not fully working. “When your frontal lobes finally complete their process of myelination, they begin to work properly and you stop doing dangerous things,” he explains. “Most importantly, you stop feeling immortal.” 

Unfortunately, parents can’t do much to speed the maturation of their kid’s brain, and with such an inflated sense of their invulnerability, many vaccine-hesitant teens aren’t altogether convinced that the virus could hurt them. And, if you can fend off the virus with your own innate superpowers, why on earth would you need a vaccine?

Skepticism And The Vaccine-Hesitant Teen

Teens are as susceptible to misinformation as adults—likely more so. Their immature brains are learning to solve problems in a logical way–but those skills are not quite mastered during those teenager years. And so, just like many other gullible social media consumers, these impressionable kids are digesting loads of spurious vaccine information. Plus, unfortunately, they don’t 100% know how to sift through and discriminate fact from fiction. Fauci, a decorated physician-scientist and immunologist serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to every president since Reagan, may assure the public of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine; but, Tiktok and Facebook are telling a different story. Throw some hydroxychloroquine memes and microchip conspiracy theories in the direction of a vaccine-hesitant teen, and that goulash of misinformation may just turn them into full-blown anti-vaxxer.

As of November 5, CDC data shows that just 25% of 12- to 15-year-olds, and 37% of 16- and 17-year-olds, are fully vaccinated. When you combine the vaccine-avoidant teen with the faction of pro-vax teens who are being strong-armed by obstinate parents, we are talking about a huge group who are essentially unarmed against Covid. I don’t foresee many anti-vax parents uncaging their vaccine-seeking teens, so maybe we have to focus our efforts on our vaccine-hesitant teen population. As proactive parents, we need to ask questions, address, and challenge their doubts. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to risk a little family discord and barrage that kid with some good old-fashioned badgering. It’s a fight worth having.