Do you remember the good old days when kids were kids and there was never anything to worry about? Those days never really existed, but today there are issues kids worry about that weren’t issues for some adults. They include fear of bullying, natural disasters, divorce, and violence.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, over 30% of children are estimated to be involved in bullying, either as the aggressor or as the target. Each year, 160,000 students miss at least one day of school because they fear dealing with a bully. The effects of bullying on the victim are well documented. If the aggression continues for a prolonged time, it can affect a child’s self-esteem and self-worth, leading him or her to become withdrawn, depressed, anxious and insecure. What’s more, there are also negative effects on the bully. Those who act as bullies seem to maintain these characteristics into adulthood (if not properly intervened), negatively influencing their ability to develop mature adult relationships.
The best thing a parent can do is listen and allow your child to feel his or her emotions. Even if bullying is not occurring, the fear of bullying is natural and powerful. If there is only anxiety, a discussion can empower your child to feel that he can overcome these feelings. If, however, there is actual bullying going on, you should address the issue with your child’s school.
Hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes seem to be in the news on a regular basis these days, making it perfectly normal for a child to fear that these natural disasters can occur in his area as well. With New York City heavily hit by Hurricane Sandy last year, many children fear it will happen again. For those who live in more heavily affected areas, this fear can be overwhelming.
The key is to stay calm and not engage in lengthily explanations. Say something like, “Yes, bad things can happen, but it is unlikely to happen to us again. Plus, we had the opportunity to learn and we can make sure that we are safe if there ever is another storm.”
Our community was devastated and stunned several years ago when a young boy did not make it home from his day camp. We continue to mourn his loss. For other children, the case was particularly distressing and unsettling, as many were aware of his disappearance. On a broader level, children often hear about school shootings or other violence that makes them feel that their home, school, and community are not safe havens.
There are several ways you can help alleviate your child’s anxiety (and perhaps your own):
- Pick out “safe spots.” If your child is old enough to walk on the street alone, pick out different spots on his route that are designated as “safe.” These might include grandparents’ house, the library, police stations, the firehouse, familiar stores and restaurants, or friends’ houses. Teach your child to use those safe spots if he feels that he is in danger.
- Travel in groups. Whenever possible teach your child that it is best if he walks or bikes with friends. Predators are less likely to prey on groups of children, whereas a child walking alone is an easier target.
- No short cuts. If your child is used to his route to and from school, tell him he is not allowed to take any shortcuts through parking lots or alleyways. He should stay on heavily populated streets that are familiar and well lit. Talk about the areas of your neighborhood that are safer than others and do test-runs with him to ensure that he learns the route.
- Check in. The adult who takes care of the child needs to know where he is at all times. To that end, children should tell their parents exactly where they are going and at exactly what time they will get there and return. This way, children learn to be aware and responsible for their comings and goings.
- Avoid speaking to strangers. In some extenuating circumstances, speaking to strangers is necessary, so teach your child how to choose the “safer” stranger. Explain that he should go into a store, or stop a woman with children.
Above, I outlined what I dubbed “normal fears” – anxieties that arise from deservedly scary events that can be dealt with through discussion. Below, I will identify some anxieties that go beyond the scope of discussion and require greater intervention.
In 2001, in The New York Times, Margaret Talbot reported that around 13% of the population is affected by social anxiety. People who believe they might have social anxiety exhibit some of the following symptoms:
- Frequently blushing in front of people
- Sweating in front of people
- Trembling or shaking in front of others
- Heart palpitations around people
- Fear of embarrassment causes them to avoid speaking to people
- Aversion to speaking to anyone in authority
- Going to great lengths to avoid criticism
- Excessive fear of strangers
- Social anxiety is also linked to depression – quiet resignation and isolation
Children with separation anxiety worry about separating from their parents during school, work, a quick errand, bedtime, or even when they are in the next room. They report a vague feeling that something bad will happen and they need to be near their parent in order to prevent it. In order to diagnose separation anxiety, these symptoms must not be isolated and must occur for more than four weeks consecutively.
It’s common for these children to:
- Have difficulty attending school
- Make frequent calls home
- Show unwillingness to play at friends’ houses
For both social anxiety and separation anxiety, there are multiple methods to overcome and quell the fear. If you see your child exhibiting these characteristics, it might be helpful to call in some reinforcements to allow the whole family a more enjoyable and relaxed environment.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at email@example.com.
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