My teenage daughter is refusing the HPV vaccine

By Laurie Lichtenstein

My daughter Julia is going off the grid. She is currently living in the woods behind my house, with a dog-eared paperback of Thoreau’s Walden and a quill pen to underline her favorite passages. She’s even disposed of her iPhone. What prompted this distrust of modern life and its creature comforts was her father’s and my insistence that she receive the Gardasil shot, an eleven-year-old vaccine that protects against nine strains of cancer-causing HPV. She is unflappable in her conviction that the vaccination will do irreparable damage to her body—and no amount of logic will change her mind.

Shots are rational. They are a gift for my children; a way I can protect them long after they leave the shelter of my home. I was not the parent who winced when the needle stabbed my baby’s leg, and Julia’s first year went smoothly as the strict schedule of vaccines were administered at monthly well visits. But somewhere around 15 months, as the nurse was about to give her a shot, she smiled, fleetingly, before dissolving into wails and shrieks unlike any that had come before. I scooped her up, praised her bravery and gave her a bottle.

I wondered if Julia remembered any of her early experiences with needles, as she now mounted a fierce campaign not to get the Gardasil shot. “People die!” she insisted. “None of my friends’ mothers would do this to them!” Naively, but logically, I thought a simple text to several mom friends, confirming that their daughters had indeed received the vaccination, and lived to tell, would convince her that she should do the same. I was confident that our pediatrician could send me a highlighted copy of the vaccine schedule, to elucidate its importance, and assuage her fears.

I was mistaken. In the days leading up to the injection, my daughter found every anti-vaccine group and fringe website out in cyberspace. Like any good researcher trying to collect evidence to support her own point of view, she ignored the more conventional sites like the Center for Disease Control, and instead she prowled blogs of people who claim to have had experienced permanent harm after receiving the Gardasil shot.  

But for weeks I discounted her daily reports on the dangers of this vaccination, sure that what was really going on was simply anxiety. So when the morning of the shot arrived and she insisted yet again that we were launching a conspiracy to either kill or blind her, I was unprepared. A sixteen-year-old can’t be physically dragged to the car, so after some good old-fashioned yelling failed, I used the newly minted teen version of a promise for a trip to the toy store. “I will let you drive in a parking lot,” I said, “if you go to the doctor and consider what she has to say.”

So she did, but continued her tirade against modern medicine with our pediatrician, and in a debate far more intelligent than the recent presidential showdowns, the two of them engaged in a point-counterpoint argument about the advantages and possible harmful side effects of this particular vaccine. The doctor finally looked at me and said, “We can’t hold her down. She’s sixteen.” And with that she left to go see the infant next door who undoubtedly would be held down for her shots.

The juxtaposition was not lost on me. The baby. Helpless. Crying. Naïve. Not understanding that the needle with which she was about to be poked would cause fleeting pain, but perhaps save her from a childhood disease. And the teenager, no longer helpless, acutely aware of how a momentary pinch could potentially spare her from an STD-induced cancer. Her cries were different than the infant’s, but desperate and naive in their own way. They were cries for independence. “It’s my body and I get to decide what goes into it!” I wondered if I was witnessing a teen rebel who had yet to rebel in more traditional ways like alcohol experimentation. Or maybe this was an expression of her most recent political passion—women’s rights. It’s hard to say.

When I was on the fast moving treadmill of caring for my babies, I wouldn’t have guessed I might prefer sleep-interrupted nights and diaper changes to intellectual and emotional showdowns. Teens profess to know everything, certainly more than their parents, but their still-developing brains do not fully allow for the ability to reason, which makes it difficult to parent them. They almost look like adults, but certainly don’t act like adults.

My baby girl still exists somewhere inside this nearly grown person who possesses almost-but-not-really adult ideas and convictions. And contrary to what she believes, it is still my responsibility to protect her and make decisions on her behalf. I am not entirely sure I agree with the doctor’s pronouncement that “We can’t hold her down.” Both my husband and the doctor believe it won’t come down to forcing her, that logic will eventually prevail and my daughter will return for her shot. I’m not so sure, but as is often the case with our teenage children sometimes gentle coaxing, or finding a circumlocutious route, is how to arrive at the desired outcome. It occurred to me that I travelled similar windy paths when she was a toddler—to get her out the door in a hurry, or to get her into the bath.

As I passed the room with the baby, I fought the temptation to say to the parents, “Good luck!” or “Enjoy her while she still takes a bottle.” I remember people said this to me about the very person who was now leaving the doctor’s office without having gotten the HPV vaccine. I remember thinking when my daughter was young that parenting would get easier as she grew, because it had to be easier to parent a person who didn’t require constant assistance to eat, bathe, dress.

I know my daughter is supposed to make this move toward adulthood, to struggle with her independence. But I still need her to understand my role as her advocate and champion. First, though, she will need to come back in from the woods.

Laurie Lichtenstein is an English and social studies teacher who is thrice blessed with two teens and a tween. She and her husband continue to be befuddled by their children’s behavior as they stay up late into the night fondly reminiscing about the sleepless nights they endured when the kids were babies.  

Flowers—The Beauty of Vaccines, by Vik Miniz ( “The artwork is a microscopic pattern of liver cells infected with a smallpox vaccine virus. After infection, the virus turns the cells a reddish color which allows scientists to visualise infection.”)

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