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Overview of Social Issues Affecting Children


Steven D. Blatt

, MD, State University of New York, Upstate Medical University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Sep 2022

To thrive, a child must experience the consistent and ongoing care by a loving, nurturing caregiver, whether that person is a parent or substitute caregiver. The security and support that such an adult can provide gives a child the self-confidence and resiliency to cope effectively with stress.

To mature emotionally and socially, children must interact with people outside the home. These interactions typically occur with close relatives, friends, neighbors, and people at child care sites, schools, places of worship, and sports teams or other activities. By coping with the minor stresses and conflicts inherent in these interactions, children gradually acquire the skills to handle more significant stressors. Children also learn by watching how the adults in their lives handle distress.

Like adults, children are impacted by events that occur outside of their own communities. For example, shootings at schools and other public places or events are widely covered by all types of media, and most children learn about them in some way when they happen. School shootings in particular receive much coverage by traditional media platforms such as television, radio, and newspapers, and digital media platforms such as news and discussion web sites, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The older the child, the more access that child has to information about these events. In addition, accounts of political differences regarding polarizing issues such as immigration and gun control are often delivered by various media using extremely aggressive and polarizing language. Even issues such as health insurance are often discussed with extreme emotion or in a hostile manner. These types of information delivered in such a manner can be anxiety-provoking for anyone but can be particularly stressful and damaging for children. Parents may be unable to lessen their child's stress or limit any damage because they may not even know what their child has heard outside of the home.

As children mature into adolescents and young adults, they develop their own sense of independence of thoughts and actions. Parents, along with schools and religious institutions, have always been tasked with directing children's education and helping them develop their beliefs. Children's thoughts and beliefs are also shaped by outside influences. One of the leading outside influences is social media. As social media's influence has exploded during the past few years, children have access to information as well as to misinformation through smart phones, tablets, laptops, smart watches, and other mobile devices like never before. Parents and caregivers are often unaware of the sources of information to which their children are exposed and often do not have the opportunities to control these significant influences. It is easy for most young children to access information that is inaccurate, inappropriate, or inconsistent with parental values. It is imperative for all parents and caregivers to be aware of all of the sources from which their children receive information. Awareness is best accomplished by having open discussions with children, parental monitoring of online activity, and as needed, limiting access to inappropriate content.

Did You Know...

  • Illness or death in an infant or a child often makes parents feel guilty, even when they are not at fault.

  • Sometimes children need to hear the same message about a difficult issue over and over.

  • Children who are bullied are often too frightened or embarrassed to tell an adult.

Certain major events that disrupt the family structure or routine, such as illness Chronic Health Problems in Children Severe illness, even if temporary, can provoke a great deal of anxiety for children and their families. Chronic health problems are those that last longer than 12 months and are severe enough... read more and divorce Divorce and Children Separation and divorce, and the events leading up to them, interrupt the stability and predictability that children need. Other than the death of an immediate family member, divorce is the most... read more , may challenge a child's abilities to cope. These events may also interfere with the child's emotional and social development. For example, a chronic illness may prevent a child from participating in activities and also impair performance in school.

Events affecting the child may also have negative consequences for people close to the child. Everyone who cares for a sick child, or a child who has serious behavioral problems, is under stress. The consequences of such stress vary with the nature and severity of the illness or behavioral problem and with the family's emotional resources and other resources and supports.

Talking With Children About Difficult Topics

Many life events, including illness or death of someone close (see Death of a Family Member or Loved One Death of a Family Member or Loved One Many families have to deal with the difficulties surrounding an ill and dying child. Adults often have a difficult time dealing with death, and children may have a particularly difficult time... read more ), divorce Divorce and Children Separation and divorce, and the events leading up to them, interrupt the stability and predictability that children need. Other than the death of an immediate family member, divorce is the most... read more , and bullying Bullying Bullying is a form of youth violence in which repeated verbal, emotional, physical, or psychologic attacks are done to dominate or humiliate. (See also Overview of Social Issues Affecting Children... read more , are scary or unpleasant for children. Even events that do not directly affect the child, such as natural disasters, war, or terrorism, may cause anxiety. Fears about all of these, rational or irrational, can preoccupy a child. Parents may avoid discussing anxiety-provoking events, such as a shooting in a school in another community, with their child in the hope their child is unaware of the event. It might be better for parents to assume their child is aware of the event and gently explore the child's understanding of it. It is best for the child to learn about, or at least discuss, an anxiety-provoking event with a parent.

Children often have difficulty talking about unpleasant topics. However, open discussion can help the child deal with difficult or embarrassing topics and dispel irrational fears. A child needs to know that anxiety is normal and that anxious feelings will lessen over time. Parents who routinely discuss difficult topics with their children from an early age often find their children more open to talking about the complex issues they face as adolescents.

Parents should discuss difficult topics during a quiet time, in a safe and comfortable place, and when the child is interested. Parents should remain calm, present factual information, and give the child undivided attention. Acknowledging what the child says with phrases such as "I understand" or with a quiet nod encourages the child to confide. Reflecting back what the child says is also encouraging. For example, if a child mentions anger about a divorce, a parent could say, "So the divorce makes you angry" or "Tell me more about that." Asking how the child feels can also encourage discussion of sensitive emotions or fears. For example, fear of abandonment by the noncustodial parent during a divorce or guilt for causing the divorce.

By talking about their own feelings, parents encourage children to acknowledge their fears and concerns. For example, about a divorce, a parent might say, "I am sad about the divorce, too. But, I also know it is the right thing for mommy and daddy to do. Even though we cannot live together anymore, we will both always love you and take care of you." By doing this, parents are able to discuss their own feelings, offer reassurance, and explain that divorce is the right choice for them. Many children, particularly younger ones, need to hear the same message repeatedly. Parents should not underestimate the value of the reassurance offered by these messages.

A parent may also have to address a difficult aspect of the child's own behavior. For example, a parent who suspects the child or adolescent of using drugs or alcohol should address the issue directly with the child. A parent might say, "I am worried that you are using drugs. I feel this way because. . . ." It is important for the parent to speak in a clear and calm manner, expressing both the concerns about the child's behavior as well as their support and love. After the parent's concerns have been stated, the child should be offered an opportunity to speak. The child and the parent should develop a plan of action that may include an appointment with a pediatrician or a counselor.

Recent events have highlighted the importance of family discussions. The COVID-19 pandemic COVID-19 COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness that can be severe and is caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Symptoms of COVID-19 vary significantly. Two types of tests can be used to diagnose... read more has injected politics, values and beliefs, and civil demonstrations into what once would have been simply a "health care" discussion. The pandemic has had an impact on everyone, including children, and parents should be prepared to discuss the multitude of COVID-related issues with their children. Similarly, political issues, including racial tensions, voting rights, and reproductive rights, have returned to a prominent place in national and local news. As adults struggle to reach consensus on these areas of conflict, it is even more difficult for children to understand these issues and how to respond. Given social media and the internet, parents need to recognize that their children will be aware of these social issues and must help guide their children in how to process them.

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