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Must Today's Kids Be Victims of Fear? : Megasdoses of reality are taking their toll on '90s children. But there are steps parents can take to minimize the damage.

March 31, 1993|JERRY HOLDERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the ripe old age of 7, Michael already knows the meaning--and the feeling--of high anxiety.

Just last week, his mother took him to rehearsals for a play at Laguna Beach High School. As he waited in an outside courtyard for the rehearsals to begin, a high school student approached him as she walked toward her locker. The second-grader panicked and squatted behind a concrete bench until she passed.

"It's not like him to be so fearful, but after we talked, it all made sense," says Laguna Beach psychologist Judy Clark. "That morning, he overheard his parents talking about a little boy who was murdered by some high school kids after witnessing a gang shooting. Michael hid because he wasn't sure whether or not the girl had a gun."

There was a time not too many years ago when the greatest threat to the peace of mind of most children Michael's age was a wicked witch, a troll from a Grimm's fairy tale or a bogeyman who somehow managed to finagle a starring role in a nightmare.

But these days, Clark says, reality can be far more anxiety-provoking for young children than anything they might imagine.

"These days, kids routinely eat their Cheerios while watching TV coverage of how many people were shot and killed on the streets of L.A. the night before," says Clark, who has three children ranging in age from 5 to 20.

"They see graphic footage of bombings, gang violence and civil unrest. They hear adults talking about rape and child molestation cases and shootings in schools right here in Orange County. Even coverage of natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides heightens their anxiety, because it reminds them of that much more that could go wrong in their world."

Such megadoses of reality take a toll. As Janiece Boardway, M.A., a marriage, family and child counselor intern with Health Psychology Associates in Irvine, points out: "The age of innocence is a lot shorter than it used to be. Kids are exposed to so much so soon, and it's impossible to control everything they see and hear. When you consider the frequency and intensity of the images that most kids see today, it's easy to understand why so many of them are feeling so stressed."

So what's a parent to do?

Boardway says the first step is to be aware of common warning signs that a child is experiencing severe anxiety, including:

* Sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, waking up during the night, or an inability or unwillingness to go to sleep alone.

* Changes in eating habits, such as a sudden increase or decrease in appetite.

* Deterioration in academic performance. It's difficult for a child to concentrate, Boardway says, if he or she is preoccupied with concerns about their personal safety.

* Aggressive behavior, such as hitting or pushing other children.

* Withdrawal, isolation and dependency. Boardway says kids who feel anxious about the world often retreat, choosing to spend more time at home, where they feel most secure. They're also much more clingy and less willing to go places and do things without their parents.

* A preoccupation with death and danger, such as expressing concerns that a traveling parent get hijacked or killed in a bombing.

Clark says it's essential that parents address their children's fears and concerns by talking about them openly.

"Anxious parents create anxious kids," Clark says. "A lot of parents think they're protecting their kids from the real world by not talking about the bad things that happen. But that kind of avoidance usually does more harm than good because it teaches kids to avoid problems and ignore feelings. It sends a message that it's better to shut down than to communicate."

Clark says she understands the temptation parents often have to avoid such discussions.

"When kids see stories about violence, it often raises the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people," she explains. "And that question makes a lot ofparents extremely uncomfortable because there is no answer.

"The reality is that there are some things you just can't explain, especially to a 6- or 7-year-old who's really into the notion that everything has to be fair. At that age, they're not wired to understand that life isn't always fair. The idea of random evil is too much for a young child to grasp."

*

Clark suggests that parents help balance their child's perspective of the world by spending time with them doing something positive in the community. She and her two youngest children volunteer once a month at a South Laguna homeless center, bagging food and helping clean the facility.

"Getting involved with your kids in a community activity not only strengthens your relationship with them, but it also empowers them with a belief that they can make a difference, that they can effect a positive change even in an imperfect world," says Clark, who is expecting her fourth child this fall.

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