This article originally appeared in the Dec. 24, 2009 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
It’s Christmas Eve, and all across the country little ones will nestle to sleep tonight with visions of sugarplums. For many kids, however, the current economic climate means this Christmas and the coming new year promise fewer material gifts than ever before.
Nationally, the unemployment rate is at its highest level in three decades – hovering at 10 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that as many as 17 million children live in families that struggle to provide enough food every day.
An overlooked consequence may be the stress and worry that children sometimes experience. Kids in families facing difficult times often pick up on the concerns of their parents, so parents should take steps to reassure their children.
Dr. Heidi Sallee, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, says younger children who are stressed about family hardship may act up or misbehave more. Older children may become withdrawn and, in some cases, perform poorly in school.
Parents cannot easily change the family’s financial circumstances, of course, but parents should do their best to calm children’s fears.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge children’s feelings. Parents can be positive and put things in perspective for their children,” Dr. Sallee says. “Above all, children just need to be reassured. Parents should explain how they are taking positive steps to improve the family’s situation.”
Most children lack the coping skills of adults to deal with scary situations. Children do want Christmas presents, of course, but mostly they want to be reminded that Mom and Dad are there for them – that everyone is together for the holidays.
“I think if I were worried about losing a job, I might not share that with a child,” Dr. Sallee says. “We want to be open with them, but be cautious about sharing too much. We should share some information with our children, depending on their age. But at the same time, the parent’s job is to help children feel safe and confident.”
Dr. Sallee adds that reassuring children – helping them to cope with receiving fewer presents but appreciating that everyone is safe and together this holiday – may be the best gift parents can give.
There are more families in need this year than there have been in decades. If you have the means to give, this holiday season would be a great time to contribute to toy drives and food banks. Involving the entire family creates opportunities to teach children about the value of caring for others.
“Children in particular love to pick out toys to give to other children,” Dr. Sallee notes. “It’s a great way to get them involved.”
Dr. Sallee continues that scientific evidence supports the value of teaching lessons about giving. “Studies find that altruism and helping one another is innate to humans – as opposed to animals -- and that if we encourage this from the very beginning, children grow up learning how to care for others.”
More information about good parenting year-round – as well as opportunities to give -- can be found online at www.cardinalglennon.com.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.