Just the word can cause anxiety these days. On a personal level, it’s a hard decision to make — do you get them all, some, or none? On what schedule? And if you opt for anything other than the CDC schedule, you face judgment from people who say that you’re hurting your child and society.
It’s no surprise that most people just avoid the topic completely.
There are absolutely times that you should avoid the topic. It really isn’t one for casual conversation anymore. And, if someone’s getting heated about it, you shouldn’t engage with them. There’s no point in getting in a fight over it.
Still, some of us remain very concerned about the impact that vaccines are having on children, and want to share the information we have learned. If you’re new to the vaccine conversation, how do you start it with friends and family?
How to Talk to Friends and Family About Vaccines
This is the most important thing: you must go into the conversation believing that the mom or dad wants what’s best for their children — even if the decision they have made or will make isn’t the same as you. It’s the only way to keep it civil and friendly, and to encourage future communication on the issue.
It’s a multi-step process, depending on the reaction you get. When in doubt, tread lightly!
1) Test the waters
Before starting a conversation about vaccines, you need to figure out how the other person will respond. Try saying something like, “What do you think about all the controversy surrounding vaccines?” or try mentioning a recent news story.
If the person expresses uncertainty, anxiety, or questions, it’s okay to proceed. If you are met with “Those irresponsible anti-vaxxers, vaccines save lives,” and other extremely pro-vaccine talk, it’s probably not the best time to have the conversation, especially if the person becomes angry. Someone who is angry cannot hear your message, so there is no point to starting the conversation in that case. Similarly, someone who is absolutely sure they are right will not be open to new information.
2) Share your decision
Relating to someone on a personal level is the best way to connect and encourage further discussion. “I feel conflicted about it all too. What we’ve chosen at this point is _____.” The person can then ask you questions about your choice (“Why did you decide that? How has it worked out for you? Are you worried about ____?”) or share their own choice.
3) Offer more information
If the person responds by asking you questions or seems to want to talk more, offer additional information. “When we were making this decision, we looked at several different resources. I can send some to you.” Follow up, when you can, by sending an email with links to books, websites, etc. that you used when making your decision. It’s often good to give someone unbiased sources and let them come to their own conclusions, without feeling put on the spot.
4) Answer questions
Be open to answering questions — both about your personal decisions, as well as about the research you did and facts you know. Answer questions simply, and answer them as they come. The questions may be at the time of your conversation, or they may be hours, days, or weeks later. Let them know you’re always willing to answer.
5) Keep it short
Someone who is hearing new information for the first time will probably not react well. Don’t come across too heavily, don’t give the person too much information at once, and allow room for them to process what they are hearing and feel surprised, hurt, angry, or even to reject the information. If you feel very passionately about the subject, you may want to jump in and tell them all the things you know — but don’t. Stick to just a couple key facts.
6) Seek common ground
When you’re sharing this information, say it gently, like “When I learned that vaccines ______, I was really surprised.” Listen to them more than you talk. Reflect their feelings back to them: “I know, I totally felt like that when I first heard — it made me really angry.”
Some people will say that “it can’t be true” or “if vaccines weren’t 100% safe and effective they wouldn’t offer them.” Seek common ground by saying “Well, you know how drugs keep getting recalled, after the FDA says they’re safe. What if that’s true here, too?” Look for ways to connect.
7) Let them vent
Some people need to talk a lot about how they feel when they hear new information. It may not always be positive. Some will say they feel confused, angry, frustrated. Some will reject it and say they refuse to believe they could have hurt their babies…and possibly wonder, what if they did? Some will rationalize the decision they made. Don’t argue, just be quiet and listen. Let them talk. Everyone needs a chance to process. (And don’t take it personally, either. It isn’t about you.)
8) Leave it open
Don’t make the first conversation too long. Don’t bash them over the head with a whole bunch of information at once. Even someone who is open, can’t hear you after a certain point. No one wants to feel like they are being lectured, either. Keep that first conversation short, but leave the door open for future conversations. Let them know you’re happy to answer questions or share more information if and when they are interested.
Remember that most people feel uncertain about vaccines to some extent — or really haven’t questioned them. There are not too many people who are strongly for, or strongly against. Even some people who seem to be strongly for actually feel uncertain, and are saying things because the media told them that the “anti-vaxxers” (which is anyone who questions the full CDC schedule or vaccines at all, and includes people who choose selective or delayed schedules or who think most vaccines are good) were terrible and making people sick.
Speak gently, don’t say too much, and let them come to you with questions. Encourage them to check out package inserts, and ask their doctors questions too. Keep the conversation open. The decision is too important for people to not talk about it.
Have you talked to others about vaccines?
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