Weight and Bullying

One-third of all children in the US are overweight or obese and being overweight is a stigma that leads to teasing and bullying. One study found that over 85% of children report seeing an overweight peer being teased and bullied during gym class. It is more common than gender issues, race, ethnicity, physical disability or religion. Children and especially teenagers are very sensitive to the social effects of being singled out as overweight. Children who are overweight are bullied since they are viewed by others as being different or undesirable. Weight is a visible way to stigmatize children.

Overweight bullying leads to increased stress and social isolation. It diminishes self-esteem and self-worth and causes children to be excluded from social opportunities. It often leads to depression, anxiety, loneliness and sadness. Children who are bullied due to their weight are more prone to become bullies themselves and often rely on binge eating for comfort.

When a parent is told about this type of bullying the focus must be on attentive, sensitive and responsive reflective listening. Parents must be attuned to the feelings and needs of their child and tell the child: “I am sorry this happened, and I am glad you told me.” The child must be told teasing is never right or fair. The parent must explain how teasing hurts others and is always wrong. The focus of the discussion is then pivoted to the fact that how much a person weighs does not define who they are. Weight is only one of many measures of good health, and it is a measure that can be changed and controlled.

The language that is chosen when talking about being overweight is very important. Judgmental or stigmatizing language causes overweight children to shut down and withdraw and hinders discussions. The weight-based terminology you choose will have a lasting effect on your child’s willingness to lose weight. Parents must emphasize how their love is unconditional no matter what the child’s weight is, and how the extra or added weight the child is carrying can make the body work extra hard and cause the child to have less energy. The child should be asked: “How does the extra weight make you feel?” At the same time the parent reaffirms the importance of a healthy lifestyle and why how you feel is more important than how you look. For the final step the parent explains how working together will help the child to lose weight and become healthier.

Losing weight is never easy. It takes time, consistency and effort. Small incremental changes in dietary intake and activity level are essential as are stress reduction and adequate sleep. The modeling of a healthy lifestyle and weight pattern by parents is also essential. By increasing active time and time spent outdoors risk factors such as excessive screen time and sedentary time are decreased. An emphasis on family play time and joint activity time also helps as does shopping together for healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. Choosing and preparing healthy and favorite recipes together increases compliance and make losing weight a more enjoyable experience.

It is vital for every parent to strive to stop weight based bullying and its consequences. By working with the government, schools, organizations and other parents this stigma can be eliminated as the most common cause of victimization and bullying in the US.

Night Terrors and Nightmares

Dreaming and nightmares occur in REM sleep and night terrors occur during non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. These two types of sleep disruptions are called sleep disturbances.

Night or sleep terrors are episodes of fear or agitation, panic and confusion with repetitive behaviors. They can occur in children and adults. During a night terror (pavor nocturnus) the child often seems partially awake and frantic. It often begins with a panicked scream and is associated with signs of fear and autonomic arousal. Speech may be difficult to understand or words and phrases may be repeated over and over. The child is not responsive to efforts to comfort the child. There may be some sleep walking and talking and children during a night terror are difficult to arouse. When the child wakes up they do not remember a dream or nightmare.

Night terrors are usually benign in nature and no specific treatment is required other than education and trying to keep a consistent bedtime routine. Children who are overtired are more prone to night terrors. The best management focuses on allowing the child to pass through the night terror without trying to wake the child up. Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years and most occur within 1-2 hours of falling asleep.

Children who are having a “bad” dream wake much easier and usually recall the dream. The best treatment is support and reassurance. Most nightmares occur in the second half of the night. Nightmares tend to decrease after age 10 years. Children under stress in or out of the home or children with separation anxiety and attachment difficulty are more prone to nightmares.


How to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes any type of sexual act or behavior with a child including non-contact behaviors such as showing or taking pornographic images of children. The best way for parents to prevent sexual abuse is through knowledge, education and understanding.

Most sex offenders are not strangers to a child. Sexual abuse is most often committed by someone who knows the child. This may be a friend, relative, teacher, coach or neighbor. Someone in a position of authority is commonly the perpetrator and children who are compliant, respectful and obedient are especially susceptible to abuse. In almost all situations the abuser intimidates the child to remain silent and not say anything or tell anyone about the abusive behavior. Often the child assumes a personal responsibility for the actions of another and feels he or she is the cause of the abuse. With time progressive guilt and shame deepen the silence and may actually block out memories for many years or even a lifetime.

Common signs and symptoms of being sexually abused include depression, oppositional or destructive behavior, anxiety, social-withdrawal, new academic difficulties, aggressive behavior, high risk behaviors and self-injurious behaviors. Parents must be aware however, that children who are being abused or who have been abused in the past do not always show signs or symptoms of abuse.

The risk of molestation can be decreased by establishing and supporting an ongoing parent-child relationship focused on open and trusted communication and connection. By spending time with your child and talking about sexuality you will be providing your child information on how to respond if an abuse occurs. Parents who believe their child is not at risk for abuse are hiding behind a mask of ignorance and denial. By talking openly and directly about sex and sexual abuse, using age and developmentally appropriate terms, your child will be able to respond in the right way and at the right time to sexual abuse. There must be no secrets between parents and children.

Children must recognize, understand and respond to the boundaries and limits of sexual behaviors and sexual exploration. Discussions must be open, non-judgmental and shame, fear and guilt must always be avoided.  Your child must understand the meaning of privacy and how certain body parts of his or her body are private and cannot be touched, looked at, talked about or photographed without permission. Children must be taught to allow their own feelings to lead their response. If a child feels scared or uncomfortable he or she must say no and immediately notify a parent about the incident. If a parent is not available then a teacher or guardian should be immediately notified.

When your child is outside of your care special precautions are necessary. Be cautious of adults who take your child on unsupervised outings or special events and make sure your child is adequately supervised during overnight stays away from your home. Verify who is in the away household where your child is staying overnight and talk to those adults directly. Alcohol and drugs must be avoided since both encourage risk taking behaviors by children and adults. If concerned about a location or situation then consider being a chaperone or making an unscheduled visit to check on your child. An open door policy allowing parent visits is always best.

By listening to your child with love and sensitivity you will encourage openness and increase your child’s willingness to share any concerns. This prevents embarrassment and decreases the chance your child will keep the incident or behavior hidden. Never discount your child’s feelings or blame your child for his or her part in an abusive situation. By providing ongoing support, professional counseling and unconditional love to your child healing can begin.

How to Talk to Your Child About Sex

There are three topics parents must be prepared to talk about when sex is discussed between parent and child. These three topics are body parts, sexuality and romance or love. Love is both simple and complex. It is one of the strongest human drives at every age, and yet, its meaning changes from infancy to adulthood. This is why parents must educate their children about the meaning of love or someone else will.

Parents must discuss sex with their child early and often. Proper timing and location are essential. Public places should be avoided, and it is best to follow a child’s lead and wait for a question, situation or event to incite the discussion.

Sex discussions are age, knowledge and maturity dependent. The focus must be on how sex and sexuality makes you and your child feel. Proclamations, don’ts and judgment must be avoided. By discussing the do’s with your child a positive attitude about sexuality is portrayed to your child and fear, anger, shame and guilt are avoided.

Common parental mistakes include talking down to a child or not respecting a child’s intelligence or curiosity. Generational, gender, religious and cultural biases also must be recognized and dealt with. These mistakes often limit your ability to teach your child.

Topics to be addressed include the importance of being both sexually aware and sexually healthy. The physical, emotional and spiritual components of sexuality must be recognized, understood and responded to. In addition, the role of peer and partner pressure must be discussed and rumors or myths concerning sex must be dispelled. Safe sex must always be supported and the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases must always be openly and honestly discussed and accurate information provided.

Parents must talk about how sex fits into a relationship. Learning how to set expectations empowers children and teens to establish and follow appropriate boundaries concerning sexual behaviors and practices. This type of preparation teaches children why many types of sexual behaviors are worth waiting for and at the same time enhances expectations of future sexual experiences made more powerful by experience and maturity.

The best teaching tools for parents are role-playing and the media. By using the media as a springboard for role-playing discussions your views, behavior and attitude are easily represented and expressed to your child. Family and personal values can be discussed as can the timing of sexual behaviors. Parents who focus on asking rather than telling will obtain more engagement. At the same time it is important not to ask too many questions and to always speak in generalities unless specifically asked.

A final skill every parent must master is the acceptance of experimentation and exploration by children and teens. Never tell a child that his or her behavior disappoints you. This engenders guilt and decreases your child’s opportunity to learn from a mistake and make healthier future decisions about sex.

Sexuality in Children and Teens

Acceptance, understanding, mutual respect and commitment are the foundation of healthy sexuality. Sexuality is more about personal openness and love and less about pleasure and the binary politics of gender and sex. It is about conscious giving and receiving and not about social and societal expectations and dogma. It is about the support of relationships rather than what is right or wrong. The teaching of love, connection and communication allows children and teens to develop the resilience to expect and accept joy and disappointment while searching for one’s own sexuality and happiness.

Although the content and context of sexuality portrayed in the media are a strong influence on your child, the sexuality modeled in your feelings, thoughts, words and actions are the most important influence in what your child learns, believes and practices. Parents who teach a child fear, anger, shame and guilt are not supporting a life filled with happiness and conscious giving and receiving. The setting of reasonable exploration limits encourages young children to learn the limits of healthy sexuality in terms of nudity, sexual play and self-exploration. Healthy limits teach young children what is a healthy “touch” and who is allowed to safely touch the body of another.

Sexuality topics and interests differ by age. Allow your child’s age and developmental level to guide you in your teaching of sexuality. Look for teachable moments where your child is ready to learn about sexuality. Listen to your child’s questions and find out what he or she knows before answering a question. Allow your child’s questions to guide the discussion and be ready for “testing” questions your child will ask attempting to cause friction and stretch boundaries.

An interest in touching and exploring genitals and other “private” body parts on one self and another is normal in toddlers and young preschoolers. This provides you the opportunity to teach the proper names of body parts and to discuss personal and physical boundaries and the importance of exploration limits.  In this way limit setting becomes a family matter that is addressed early in life with non-judgmental understanding.

In older preschoolers, learning about sexuality progresses from exploration to questioning. Common questions include: “How did I get in your tummy?” “Where was I before I was in your tummy?” “How did I get out of your tummy?” “Where do babies come from?” and “Why do girls not have a penis?” Being prepared to respond to physical exploration and these common questions are the first steps in the teaching sexuality to your child.

As children enter school age sexuality questions progress to bodily changes and the function of body parts. During early school age children make the connection between making babies and the relationship between two people. Common questions include: “What is an erection?” “What is a period?” “When can a girl have a baby?” “How do two people have sexual intercourse?” and “What does it mean to be homosexual?” These questions must be answered with language and information that matches the developmental level and maturity of the child asking the question.

In middle school questions about love, romance and gender are common. By late school age the body and emotional changes that accompany puberty become the primary driving force for questions. The risks of risk-taking sexual behaviors, STDs and pregnancy become the focus of questions during these bridging developmental years.

During teen years the portrayal and content of sexuality in society and the media are the driving forces for questions and concerns. Teens spend more than seven hours a day on electronic devices and social media and much of this time is unsupervised and unregulated. Parents must provide media counseling to address media and peer influences on sexual behavior. Specific support and discussions must be provided concerning gender issues, respect, equality, safety and security. Talk with your teen about the pervasive sexual content in advertising, the entertainment industry and in social media. Issues such as contraception, pregnancy, STDs and sexual responsibility must be addressed in an open, non-confrontational and non-judgmental fashion. Events in the daily life of every family and teen provide the windows of opportunity to discuss these and other issues.

Knowledge, love, patience and understanding will enable you to teach your child conscious giving and receiving and the attainment of a healthy relationship with self and others. In this way healthy sexuality can become the greatest gift you can give your child.