From an adult perspective, the life of a young child may look like pure bliss. But in reality, today's kids live with many big issues that provoke fear and anxiety, depending on their circumstances. Here are five worries that can rock your child's world -- and how to help him cope.
The cruelty kids can inflict upon one another doesn't start in middle school -- it can often start earlier, at around age 5. At this tender age, kids start jockeying for social power. "For many kids, this is their first social interaction. It's the first time they have to solve these [social] problems, and that makes them anxious," says Robert Sege, M.D., Ph.D., director of the division of family and child advocacy at Boston Medical Center. "While teachers may preach the notion that 'everyone is your friend,' kids know instinctively that it simply isn't true." Kids who are bullied may talk about the torment, but they may also come home and fall apart, crying and throwing tantrums. Different kids will respond differently.
As a parent, make sure your child is safe by talking to school officials, such as the principal or the school counselor. Describe the bullying and how often it is occurring, and discuss the steps the school will take to keep your child safe. At home, work on empowering your child. "Communicate to your child that you believe she can handle social situations," Dr. Sege says. Help her come up with the right words to say to the bully, such as "You can't do that to me" or "You need to stay away from me." Practice role-playing various scenarios to prepare your child and build her courage.
Bullies are less likely to pick on kids who have friends, so encourage your child's friendships. Host playdates or enroll her in community or after-school activities, so she can be with her classmates in nonacademic settings. Consider enrolling her in programs outside the community, too, so she can make friends elsewhere. Having friends in other places will build your child's confidence in her social abilities and help her feel reassured about her likability. "A novel environment can undo the social damage," Dr. Sege says. "If a child has the experience of feeling successful socially, it helps [him] internalize the message that the problem isn't [his], it's the bully's. A child who feels more secure is less likely to be picked on. The bully is looking for vulnerability."
More than 10 percent of children across the U.S. live in households where there are violent disagreements, but abuse doesn't need to be physical. Even children who do not see the violence are vulnerable; emotional and verbal abuse behind closed doors can cause distress, as young children still sense and internalize it. "Almost all parents underestimate how much their child sees or hears," Dr. Sege says. "Parents can't compartmentalize completely. You should always assume a child knows what's going on." Witnessing any disagreements can increase a child's risk for emotional and behavioral problems. A child anxious about domestic abuse may not say anything, but he will act out by misbehaving at home or at school, crying excessively, or wetting his bed.
If you're living with domestic abuse of any kind, get help right away, especially if the abuse is physical. Find a way to remove yourself and your children from the situation. Look for resources in your community and online, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV.org), that aid victims of domestic violence. Or talk to a family or marriage therapist to learn how to resolve conflicts and move beyond the pain. Be patient. It will take time to change or eliminate destructive patterns, but if the situation allows, don't be afraid to reconcile differences peacefully. "It's fine for parents to show that they disagree and they make up," Dr. Sege says. "If, as a family, you can abide by the rule that you never go to sleep angry, it's an incredible life lesson."
For some couples, conflict eventually leads to divorce. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about a third of men's first marriages end in divorce before the 10th anniversary. For children of any age, a separation or divorce is a major loss. "The scariest thing about divorce for kids under age 6 is the unknown; it can be stressful, sad, and confusing," says Mona Gupta, D.O., a psychiatrist in Raleigh, NC. "It is not uncommon for children to think, 'What will happen to me if mom and dad do not live together?'"
To ease a child's anxiety during a divorce, reassure her that things will be okay. Allow her to stay in the same school district and neighborhood with one parent, if possible, and maintain her routines so she can expect stability, structure, and comfort. As difficult as it may be, remain cordial toward your former spouse and be courteous and cooperative when discussing plans and schedules, especially in your child's presence. Try to maintain the same rules in the separate households, and avoid undermining your ex-partner's decisions. "Often, it is easy to get caught up in arguing or fighting with each other, so that you lose sight of presenting a stable and firm front," Dr. Gupta says. "Make sure you stay on the same page. Avoid blaming and do not be critical of your spouse in front of your children. This can be especially difficult when there have been hurtful events, but present a united front as much as you can." Continue spending one-on-one time with your child. The goal is to let her know that even if her parents don't remain together, they still love her, so don't be shy about saying "I love you" often.