Pediatric experts talk about the real-life concerns that can occupy the minds of kids aged 4 to 6.
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.
Back to School: Handling Worries
More Kids' Worries
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Wildfires. For young children who have lived through these or similar natural disasters, life can be filled with anxiety. According to Joseph F. Hagan, Jr., M.D., a pediatrician in Burlington, Vermont, all children have some degree of anxiety, fear, and depression when exposed to disaster, but the degree depends on the level of exposure, the extent they are personally affected, and the child's temperament, age, and stage of development. Kids who have poor social support or who are naturally shy and fearful are more likely to be traumatized, and parents with poor coping skills can make it harder for children to overcome trauma. Excessive exposure to media coverage can heighten and prolong anxieties, even for kids who did not experience the disaster personally. Your child doesn't need details and lengthy explanations, so limit what your child sees on TV or the Internet. Some children may have a hard time understanding that the earthquake they see in another region of the world is unlikely to strike where they live.
The key is to stay as calm as possible and press on with the business of recovering. Do your best to tame your own anxieties; worrying will transfer similar feelings to your children. "Help them know they can be safe," Dr. Hagan says. "Tell them, 'Yes, bad things can happen, but it doesn't mean it will happen again. We will get through this.'" Be a role model and show them how to move forward by maintaining normal routines as much as you can.
Guns and Violence
Sadly, gun violence such as the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, has become common in the news, and it can strike close to home. The CDC notes that 209 children age 12 and under died from firearm-related causes in 2010, and 770 were hospitalized that same year. Shielding your child from violence and guns isn't just a political issue -- it's a matter of home safety, Dr. Sege says. "It's really simple; the safest home is a home without guns. If you have to have a gun, store it unloaded and locked, with the ammunition stored elsewhere and locked."
Let your child know that gun shootings in public areas (like schools, malls, and movie theaters) are still relatively rare, tragic as they may be, and that the shooters are often people who need help for serious problems. Discuss specific steps that your school has taken to keep the children safe and explain that leaders in the community, state, and nation are talking about ways to promote gun safety. "Make sure you are monitoring what your children are watching on TV at all times," Dr. Gupta says. "If they do see a violent act on the news or on a TV program, tell them that you and others will always ensure their safety."
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