While the holidays can be an exciting time of year, they can also be stressful for parents as well as children. How do you know if your child’s wish list includes safe, age-appropriate toys and games? How can you help your children cope with any stress they may be feeling during the holiday season? Dr. Leila Hall, Suburban Hospital’s new chair of pediatrics and medical director of the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center at Suburban Hospital, shares some tips on gift-giving and dealing with holiday stress for parents and kids of all ages.
What types of toy-related injuries do you see during the holiday season?
In the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center, we see the obvious injuries you would expect from BB guns and other shooting or flying toys, and we see the unintended injuries that result from children choking on or swallowing small toy parts, being strangled by cords or strings, or being exposed to unsafe levels of chemicals such as lead. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2010 there were an estimated 251,700 toy-related injuries for all ages treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments.
Emergency department physicians have removed Legos from children’s noses and air darts from their ears, and we’ve seen children who have swallowed small toy parts, magnets and batteries. Ingestion of magnets and button batteries is a particular concern. While magnets seem innocuous, if two or more are swallowed they can cause bowel obstructions that can have fatal consequences. Similarly, button batteries are easy to swallow and can leach battery acid in the stomach, causing intestinal erosion. Parents should avoid buying toys that contain magnets. If you are purchasing a toy that requires batteries, make sure the battery compartment is secure and that batteries are out of sight of children, especially during the chaos of Christmas morning.
What should I consider when selecting a toy for my child?
Read the manufacturer’s label before making a toy purchase. Ask yourself a few simple questions: Is the toy designed for the age of the child in mind? Does it contain potentially unsafe parts or pieces that the child could swallow? Is adult supervision needed when the child is using the toy, and, if so, will an adult be available to supervise the child’s play?
Another important consideration is the ages of other children in the home. Can you keep a toy or game intended for an older child away from a younger child? Are there potential safety risks if younger children gain access to a particular toy or game? Careful consideration, common sense, and vigilance are key to ensuring that no child is harmed by a toy or game. And remember, there is no substitute for watching your kids.
If you are concerned about the safety of a particular toy, check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which publishes information on recalled toys. Go to cpsc.gov or call 800-638-2772. The CPSC also has an online toy safety shopping guide.
My children spend way too much time watching television and playing video games. How do I control this time, especially when they are home during winter break?
Children want to emulate older kids and grownups. That’s why it’s so important that parents model healthy behaviors. This includes limiting the amount of time you spend on your tablet or smartphone when you are home with your children. When it comes to screen time, a general rule is that kids should spend no more than two hours per day watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web, or accessing a smartphone. I tell my older teenage patients that they are responsible for their homework and their extra-curricular activities first and foremost. After all of their priorities have been met, they can then allocate some of their free time to playing video games, watching television, or sitting in front of a computer.
My son is asking for the latest violent video game. I know he will be playing the game at his friends’ houses, so how do I say “no” to his request to buy the game?
It’s important for parents to make informed decisions and it’s OK to say “no” sometimes. You always want to be aware of what types of games your children want to play. This includes taking the time to play some of these games with your children. It’s not enough just to look at a game’s rating. Get to know the content of the game so you can decide if the game aligns with your family’s values. If you don’t approve of a game’s content, begin a dialogue about the game with your children. Explain how you feel about the game and let them tell you why they want it and how they interpret the violent content. Make a decision about the game as a family. As your children get older, you may not be able to control their gaming choices, but you can and should be aware of what they are playing and talk about it as a family.
What are some warning signs that my child may be having difficulty coping with the hustle and bustle of the holidays?
Kids are very sensitive to over-stimulation and sleep deprivation. The key to emotional stability for kids is keeping a consistent schedule, especially in their eating and sleeping routines. Transitions are difficult for kids and having so much unstructured time can be challenging for them. Make sure your children know about your holiday plans in advance so they can share their concerns with you. This will help make any transition easier.
It’s especially important this time of year to model healthy lifestyle behaviors for your children. There is an epidemic of obesity in this country. Remind your kids to make healthy meal choices at home and when dining out. One-half of every plate should contain fruits and vegetables, with one-quarter containing grains (preferably whole grains) and the final quarter containing protein. Children should avoid sodas and other sugary drinks, opting for water or milk instead. During the holidays, the combination of shorter days, more opportunities to overeat, and less physical activity due to a break from PE and sports can all take a toll on kids. Make time to exercise as a family, even if you just take a walk together after dinner.
I recently divorced and I’m worried about how my children will react to the holidays this year. How can I help them?
For any child dealing with the loss of a family member or a significant change in the family dynamic, the holidays often amplify these feelings of loss. Talk to your child before the holidays so he or she can get those feelings out in the open. Enlist a trusted family member or friend to be your child’s “safe person” — someone who will be there for your child and will take your child to a safe place to talk when he or she is feeling overwhelmed or sad. Have a plan for any family get-together or activity and talk about that plan ahead of time. Expectations and preparation are so important for kids. It’s your job to help ensure that there are no big surprises.
How do I make the holidays about more than just buying the latest toys and gadgets?
The most important gift you can give your kids is the gift of your time. Give your children a voucher that’s good for a trip to the movies with you, an outing to their favorite museum, or some one-on-one video game time. Give them tickets to a musical performance or the theater. Experiential gifts are so helpful to kids. They take up no shelf space, they don’t get lost or broken, and they create lasting memories. The biggest present you can give your children is your presence in their lives.
About Dr. Leila Hall
Dr. Hall is a board-certified pediatrician and the new chair of pediatrics and medical director of the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center at Suburban Hospital. A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, Dr. Hall completed her residency at Children’s Hospital at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.
In addition to serving as medical director of the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center, Dr. Hall runs her own private practice, Next Generation Pediatrics, located at 5622 Shields Drive in Bethesda.
For more information about the Shaw Family Pediatric Emergency Center at Suburban Hospital, go tosuburbanhospital.org/pediatrics or call 301-896-2400.