Q: My kids (2nd and 4th graders) are both really smart, and they seem to get along well with peers and teachers. But occasionally they go through rough patches where they're moody and just not keeping up with schoolwork the way I know they can. What can I do?
Jim: There could be various explanations, but I'd start with a simple question: Are your kids getting enough "Vitamin Z"? Ample sleep may be one of the biggest secrets to a child's health and well-being.
Researchers from the University of Chicago studied the sleep patterns of children between the ages of 4 and 10. They found that most of our kids are sleep-deprived, usually because of the busy schedules we expect them to keep. After a long day in the classroom, they still have homework and various after-school activities to get through -- not to mention the lure of electronic screens.
Ideally, at this age kids should get between 10 and 12 hours of sleep every night. But on average, most only get between 8 and 9 hours. That may not sound like much of a difference, but even short gaps in sleep can impact a child's mood, brain development and eating patterns. In fact, lack of sleep and erratic bedtimes are thought to be a cause that's often overlooked in binge eating in children.
As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." All these years later, science is proving Franklin was correct. Most children probably need more sleep than they're getting.
So I'd suggest considering whether you might pull back a little on your kids' schedule when you can and make sure their bedtimes are somewhat structured. Also, don't force them out of bed too early on Saturday mornings. Let them sleep in and get a little extra "Vitamin Z."
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Q: How can we help our adopted 6-year-old son overcome his fears? He recently fell into a very shallow lake, and now he's afraid of the water. I want to get him back in as soon as possible, but I'm concerned since he's had a long history of trauma and struggles with fear.
Danny Huerta, Vice President, Parenting and Youth: I commend you for helping your son feel comfortable getting back into the water. It's also essential to be sensitive to his reaction. For many children who are adopted or have faced difficult journeys (such as foster care), experiences like this can be magnified. Similar incidents could continue to be a "big deal" until these kids are able to work through their fears and the way they interpret certain situations.
Several strategies can be helpful for your son. First, encourage him to tell the story of what happened -- repeatedly if necessary. Giving voice to their fears and personal ownership to their own story helps kids gain mastery over them.
Second, remember Dumbo the flying elephant and his "magic feather"? Initially, Dumbo couldn't fly without the feather, which wasn't really "magic" at all -- it was just a prop (placebo) that gave him confidence and enabled him to face his fears. You and your son can probably come up with several different "magic feathers" (a life jacket, floaties, etc.). The idea is to empower him by hearing him and helping him feel safer. Encourage him by showing him what he can control in small conquerable steps.
Third and most important, assure him that Mom and/or Dad will swim with him. By being in the water with him, you'll help restore his confidence and allow him to address his fears with you by his side. You'll also be building connection and a deep sense of trust between parent and child.