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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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September 12, 2007

Mom's eyeview of campus life


What to know one of the best things I get in return for the many thousands of dollars we send off to my son's college? It's this: A live-camera shot of three spots on campus, including one called "Hi Mom."

At "Hi Mom," a student can appear live on-camera simply by standing in a certain spot in front of the book store. Of course, the student has to call and tell mom or dad he's there and you have to have access to your computer at that specific moment. I know, what are the chances? How many times have I seen my very own son on Hi Mom? Once last year. 0 this year.

I'm not holding my breathe.

No matter. I love Hi Mom anyway. It's a chance to see a slice of life on my son's campus and to feel connected in some teeny way. I click on Hi Mom at least once a day.

For instance, I love to see the weather there. You don't have to believe me, but it's really not because I'm worried whether he's dressed appropriately; if he's old enough to be at college, he's old enough to know whether he's hot or cold. I just like knowing that we are (or aren't) sharing the same weather experience.

Plus, I've seen some really interesting slices of campus life on Hi Mom. A young woman who was clearly introducing her new boyfriend. A young man who had gathered a few friends to hold up a "happy birthday, mom!" sign while they were obviously singing to her into the phone. One day, I watched a young man talk to someone on the phone, put down the phone, jump on the bench and show-off a breakdance kind of move, then pick up the phone again. Maybe that wasn't mom on the other end? I've seen a young woman sit on the bench in the camera's view intently arguing with the person on the phone (couldn't be mom!), then slam the phone shut and stalk out of view.

Today I watched a young man who wasn't on the phone and probably didn't even know he was on camera. He sat down on the bench and opened a bag he had probably just purchased at the book store and took out something red. Then he took off his shoes -- they were sturdy, black tie-shoes, ones you can just imagine some parent bought specially for college -- and put them in the bag. Those red things? Flip-flops. He put them on and walked out of view. I liked the new look.

I wonder if his mom was watching.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 12:48 PM
September 12, 2007

When children are little adults

We all know children who prematurely assume adult roles in the family, either because they are pushed into them or have no choice. This isn't only a function of dysfunctional families, either. Think of the mother who becomes chronically ill and her 10-year-old becomes her caretaker while older siblings have after-school responsibilities; a father who suffers a disability and a teen son works two after-school jobs to help the family stay afloat. What about the immigrant parents whose young child is the family's only proficient English speaker, and becomes not only the family's translator but also the family's worrier?

I've always wondered what happens to these children when they become adults themselves. Now there's a study that looks at adultified children in families of poverty. The study, published in the October issue of Family Relations (click here for the abstract), is the work of sociologist Linda Burton of Duke University.

One result shows that children who have adult mentoring when they assume an adult role can have improved self-confidence. More likely, though, the children suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety, the study finds. The study concludes by recommending the creation of programs to help these children manage their social and emotional lives and to give them "respites" from their responsibilities. It also urges teachers and other professionals in their lives to better understand the phenomenon.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:08 AM
September 11, 2007

Why you need to talk to your children about 9/11

Children who were very young six years ago today, or who weren't even born yet, are of an age now to understand the events of 9/11 differently than they once did. Don't avoid the conversation.

As new levels of cognition kick in at each new stage of development, it can almost be as if a child is hearing about a tragedy like this for the first time. I'm remembering hearing some years ago about a 3-year-old who lost his father. When he turned 6, he stated tearfully to his mother, "Daddy's never coming back, is he?" It was a painful moment for the mom, but it was only then that the child had the cognitive tools to understand that death is forever.

A child who has been old enough for the past few years to have heard about 9/11, say a 5- to 8-year-old, may be understanding some nuance he hadn't previously grasped. Even a middle- or high-schooler may be putting things together in new ways. If you're a parent who is travelling for work in the next days, weeks or months and, out of the blue, your 7-year-old is peppering you with questions about airplane or travel safety, or even begging you not to go, consider that his or her new level of cognition enables her to put old information together to form a new thought: "Uh oh. Airplanes can be dangerous. Daddy goes on airplanes a lot. He could get hurt."

Think of it this way: The child who was 2 or 3 or 4 six years ago, is hearing about the events of 9/11 with a different brain. For some, it may even seem as if it is happening again, right now, for the first time. Their worries may be very ego-centric: "Am I safe? Is my family safe? Is our country safe?" Some children will voice these concerns aloud. Those parents are the lucky ones. For some children, a worry may surface in uncharacteristic behavior, especially changes in eating or sleeping patterns. For the vast majority of kids, the day will come and go without any apparent blip. That doesn't mean, however, that the information isn't just sitting there, waiting to be processed when some seemingly unconnected event triggers a magical connection for them: "Mommy works in a tall building. Tall buildings aren't safe. I don't want mommy to go to work."

So what's a parent to do?

For starters, find out from the teacher if the subject came up in school today in any way. Even if it didn't, that doesn't mean it didn't come up in conversation on the school bus or among friends. Either way, my suggestion is to have a simple conversaton tonight at dinner, perhaps a moment of silence for the tragic events that happened six years ago. Ask your child, "Did you hear people talking today about 9/11? Tell me what you know/heard." If he says, "Nothing," tell him, "Well, if you have any questions, it's OK to ask me." If your kids are mixed ages with one old enough to remember and one not, it's OK to have the conversation with them together, but remind the older one that the younger doesn't remember it.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

1.Remind a young child that this happened six years ago (as opposed to yesterday or today); that's a long time for a young child.

2. It's OK to say that it was a very sad day, and that you were very sad. If you know someone who died that day, talk about the person but keep in mind that your audience is a young child. For instance, if you cry in the retelling, it's good for a child to see that you can have a cry and then pull yourself together and move on.

3. Point to the many safety precautions in place in our country to keep us safe, like when you travel on an airplane, there are lots of security check points. Here's a good statement for a young child to hear even if you don't think it's 100 percent true: "The government is doing all it can to keep us safe."

The best advice? Keep it simple. The idea is to make the subject talkable. By not mentioning 9/11 at all today, a child of any age could conclude any number of things from thinking that it's so upsetting or scary, you can't even talk about it, to thinking that you are a hard, calloused person who doesn't even care that all those people died, to anything inbetween.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 10:50 AM
September 10, 2007

Remember tummy time for baby


SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, gets the attention of every parent of a newborn, and so does the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics to ALWAYS put baby to sleep on his or her back. That's the best way to prevent SIDS. No professional disputes the advice.

As a result, a whole bunch of objects, generally cushions of one kind or another, have materialized in the marketplace to ensure that babies stay on their backs. These are a little controversial, as in, "Is it really necessary? Newborns can't roll over anyway." Most parents I know aren't taking any chances. They buy the accessory.

Now comes the wrinkle. According to a study earlier this year in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there's a dramatic increase in the number of infants suffering from a deformity called positional plagiocephaly, AKA flattening of the head. Twenty years ago, one in 300 babies suffered from this. Now, it's one in 20.

The likely culprit is the mandate for babies to sleep on the back. Ricardo Hahn, a family physician and professor at the University of Southern California, has launched a campaign to educate parents on how to comply with the Back to Sleep guideline, and prevent head flatenning, which is linked to a loss of hair, permanent head flattening, and lack of symmetry in ear placement. He's boiled his advice down to TOTS:

T = Tummy time. When your baby is awake, be sure to give him plenty of time lying on his tummy. (That also is important for strengthening head and neck muscles.)

O = opposite side of the crib. When you put your baby to sleep, alternate which end of the crib you place him in. That means he isn't always lying on the same spot of his head.

T = Turn his head periodically. When he's awake and on his back, gently orient his head slightly differently each time, say slightly to the right or the left.

S = Switch arms. When you're holding her, reposition her in your arm, again, so head isn't always resting on the same spot.

John Persing, a plastic surgeon at Yale School of Medicine and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says this is all good advice.

"What I wish all parents would know is that they need to start doing this from Day 1. I even wish nurses and doctors in the normal newborn nursery would pay more attention to this. That That from day one, when you put the baby down on his back for sleep, the first night you orient his head to one side, and the next night you alternate and orient it to the other. The key is to start from the beginning, because otherwise some babies will develop a preference for one side or the other and only sleep on that side."

Persing also offers this advice about tummy time: "Make sure it's well-supervised, and that the baby is on a for-fitted sheet or on the floor, so that fabric can't bunch up beneath the mouth or nose."

This is all pretty simple, but just to be crystal clear, let's summarize: When you put your baby to sleep, always put her on her back. When she's awake, find ways to move her around so her head does not always rest on the same spot.

Listen to this podcast of Hahn to hear his explanation, or click here to read it.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 02:27 PM
September 10, 2007

Teen suicide: One scary issue

One of the scariest issues to ever cross a parent's radar screen is teen suicide. Unfortunately, we have reason to be more scared than ever. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry are reporting that the rate of teen suicide was the highest in 15 years in 2003-2004, the years for which the most up-to-date records are available.

One possible explanation could be the use -- or lack thereof -- of antidepressants among teens. In 2004, the FDA required warning labels on antidepressants proscribed for teens, citing an increase in suicide among those who were taking such meds. That led to a 22 percent drop in the use of antidepressants, according to the AACAP. Maybe the lack of the drugs led to the the increase in suicide?

There are no easy answers for parents whose teens are depressed.

Click here for a fact sheet on teen suicide, here for some information on proscription drugs, and here for a column of mine on how one town coped with a teen suicide.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 01:57 PM
September 10, 2007

Sick or not?


"Is my child really sick?" That's often a tough question for parents, especially if there are no obvious symptoms like a fever. The complaint is particularly common at the beginning of the school year, when it's not unreasonable to think your child might have caught a bug from being exposed to oh so many germs. But not feeling well, especially at the beginning of school, can be caused by social and emotional issues, too: feeling left out as friendship groups shift; thinking a teacher doesn't like him; worrying about who he'll sit with at lunch; fearing he'll forget his locker combination. The list can be endless. Any one of these issues is a big deal, and any one of them can surface for any child any year, including in a child who has had perfectly smooth transitions in previous years.

Here's the bottom line: If your child isn't sick in some measurable way like a fever, send him to school. Even if he's miserable, even if she's crying. That may sound pretty harsh.

But here's the issue: By keeping home a child who is nervous or anxious about something -- who may indeed be overwhelmed enough by it to have a very real stomach ache -- the message you send is this: "Yep, everything you're fearful of is true, and then some. I'll keep you home because that's where you're safe. What's going on in school is more than you can handle."

If you're lucky, your child is verbalizing her worry: "My teacher hates me!" Be a respectful, reflective listener ("Boy, that's a terrible feeling, to think a teacher doesn't like you."). Let her sit with your feelings of support and sympathy for a while, hours, maybe even a day. Too often we are too quick to jump in with advice or to try to reassure by dismissing the concern: "Of course she likes you, you're a wonderful boy!" Guess what? The message your child takes from that is, "Mom just doesn't get it." By letting him sit with your support for a bit, he feels that you are an ally. That can make all the difference in the world when, some time later, you try brainstorm with him in a way that enables him to come up with a coping strategy. ("What do you think you can do about this?" )

Whatever you do, don't keep her home, even for just one day and especially not at this tender time of the new school year. It makes it that much harder to return to school the next day, and then you can be well on your way to one of the most difficult issues of childhood, school refusal.

Just a quick word on that. There are three levels of what professionals call school refusal, when kids don't want to go to school: the normal separation issues of a preschooler; the mild school reluctance of a school-age child who now and then says he doesn't want to go to school but, in the end, goes off without too much difficulty; and anxiety that is so intense, it's accompanied by physical illness. That's school phobia, and professionals take it very seriously. Which is why you want to get help from the teacher and/or school as soon as you think you have a problem.

Even at the school refusal stage, you want to probe with your child: "Gee, you really didn't want to go to school this morning. What was that all about?" If he dismisses it, it's probably blown over and you can move on. But if his behavior changes in other ways, or the same thing happens the next day, it's not too soon to consult with the teacher: "Anything going on for John that might have caught your attention?"

As to that original question of, Is he sick or not?, here are some thoughts from a website I like.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:32 AM
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