All parents who celebrate Christmas want their children to have the best one ever; but numerous economic reports indicate that many families are facing hardships this season.
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.
At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, pediatrician Heidi Sallee, MD, says that 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. Sallee says that 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 Older children may become withdrawn and, in some cases, perform poorly in school.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, of course, easily change the family’s circumstances, Dr. Sallee acknowledges, but parents can do their best to calm children’s fears. "I think it’s important to acknowledge children’s feelings. Parents can put a positive spin on things and reassure and put things in perspective for their children," she says.
Dr. Sallee notes that younger children may need to know less and older children more about a family’s situation. Foremost, she says, kids just need to be reassured, and parents can explain how Mom and Dad are taking positive steps to improve the family’s situation.
"I think you’d share a little bit of information with a 3-year-old, and more with your teenager. But say something like, ‘Christmas may not be as big this year, but here’s how we’re going to make it really special.'"
Dr. Sallee explains that children lack the coping skills of adults to deal with scary situations. Kids want presents, but mostly they want to be reminded that Mom and Dad are there for them – that everyone is together for the holidays, she adds.
Dr. Sallee adds that kids not only pick up worrisome information from parents, but from classmates, from the media and even from lessons taught in school. Her own 9-year-old son recently came home from school and asked his pediatrician mother whether she might lose her job.
"He had been listening to a history lesson about the Great Depression and got worried," Dr. Sallee says. With both parents working in the health care field, Dr. Sallee adds that she was able to reassure her son, but she knows that other parents have lost a job or are worried.
"I think if I were worried about losing a job, I might not share that with a child," Dr. Sallee continues. "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 expect fewer presents but appreciating that everyone is safe and together this holiday – may be the best gift parents can give.
As a pediatrician, Dr. Sallee urges parents who have the means to remember those who are less fortunate this holiday season and to contribute to toy drives and to food banks. Involving the entire family creates opportunities to teach children about the value of caring for others, she adds.
"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."
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