Summer is upon us, a season of delight for children and teens. School is out, the days are long, warm, and full of activities they get to choose. But we know that summer is also the season of accidents. While adventurous activities can lead to scratches, sprains, and broken bones, many accidents are far more serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2014 (the most recent data available), accidental injuries were the leading cause of death for children from the age of 1 year through young adulthood (age 24 years). Car accidents, drowning, burns, suffocation, poisoning, and being struck while on a bike or other vehicle are the most prominent causes of injury or death in youth.
When something is an “accident,” we understand it to be an unfortunate event that happened by chance, without deliberate cause, and not easily foreseeable or preventable. But many accidents that befall children, while not deliberate, might be more foreseeable and preventable than they first appear. With younger children, parents directly oversee their children, ensuring they wear bike helmets, are placed in appropriate car restraints, cannot play with lighters, are always in sight when learning to swim (with a family pool well fenced and locked), and have no access to guns (and the guns are not loaded and have trigger locks!).
As their children grow older, parents must manage the challenging task of teaching their children to manage risk as they cultivate independence: learning to always put on their bike helmet before riding home from school, avoiding diving into shallow water, and not riding in a car with an impaired driver. Both the direct supervision of younger children and the teaching of older children and teenagers are very demanding of time and energy for parents. Terrible accidents can occur during truly unpredictable moments of distraction, but for too many parents, these moments of distraction are in fact predictable. If parents are strained by financial troubles, a disintegrating marriage, a serious illness in a spouse or elderly parent, or their own mental illness, their ability to be fully present and patient to supervise their children will be predictably impaired. During the summer months, when children may be home all day and looking for adventure, parental stress and distraction result in a high-risk environment that makes serious accidents more likely.
You as a child care provider are wonderful at providing supportive reminders to parents about the basics of child safety and supervision. Every checkup includes questions about whether anyone smokes at home and whether there is a working smoke detector. You ask about bike helmets and booster seats, and whether there are firearms in the home and if so, whether they are properly stored and locked. While there are often no formal questions about the level of family stress at a checkup, it would be simple to add: “Would you say the stress level at home is low, moderate, or high?” Such an open-ended question could lead to discussion of those factors that might be causing stress and give you a quick sense of how equipped the parent (or parents) are to handle it. Without a doubt, physicians’ practices are themselves stressed for time, and asking parents about their own stress may seem like opening Pandora’s box. But by being curious, bringing the important matter of domestic stress into the conversation about a child’s health and well being can by itself be therapeutic. The parents found the time to bring their child to this appointment, despite their stress. By simply bringing their awareness to the impact their stress could have on the safety of their children, you may have made a critical difference.
When parents report a high level of stress, you might follow up with more specific questions about their supports. Who provides them with practical help or a supportive ear? Do they have a strong community of friends, nearby family, or a supportive faith community? Are there practical ways to outsource some of the demands they may be juggling? You should be prepared to offer resources if a parent reports domestic violence. Some pediatric practices will employ social workers who can facilitate connecting stressed families with appropriate resources. But if your practice does not, a little time online can build a database of virtual and community resources that a family can start with.
You are also in a unique position to appreciate that certain children are themselves at higher risk for accidents. Children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may be more distractible and impulsive than their peers. And summer is often a season when families decide to suspend stimulant treatment to promote weight gain or growth. These children and teens are at elevated risk to “leap before they look,” and parents should be reminded of their higher level of risk and need for supervision, at least when having a conversation about whether to suspend stimulant treatment. Children with a history of oppositional behaviors also can prove more challenging to supervise than their peers. Beyond the risk of self-injury or suicide, youth with depressive disorders can have impaired concentration and attention, and may not assess the risk of certain activities very well. These children can be challenging to parent at all times, so their parents likely manage a higher general level of parenting stress, and can benefit from your inquiry and additional resources.
A parent’s task of supervising is different with adolescents than with younger children. It is as much about effective communication and modeling how to assess risk and make judgments as it is about time spent watching the children. But these tasks take time and patience, perhaps even more than the supervision of younger kids. And while a teenager may have good judgment, who her friends are matters as much as her own judgment. Teenagers take more chances when they are with friends, and particularly with thrill-seeking friends. If parents are too distracted or busy to know who their teenager is spending time with, that itself raises the teenager’s chances of risky behaviors and accidental injury.
Of course, when teenagers are experimenting with alcohol or drugs, the risk of serious accidents increases significantly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately half of the nonmedical deaths of 15- to 24-year-olds involve drug or alcohol use. Stressed parents are less likely to be spending time with their teenagers to ask about drugs and alcohol: Who is using them? When and where? What else are they hearing about drugs and alcohol? It also takes time and a calm, clear, and open presence to talk with teenagers about expectations and ground rules around drug or alcohol experimentation (which has been shown to diminish the rate of regular use of drugs or alcohol in teens by as much as half). It takes time for parents to explain to their teenager that they should ALWAYS call home if they are anywhere they do not feel safe, even if it involves drugs or alcohol. It is complex to set rules and expectations while also being clear that their safety always comes first. You can encourage parents to know their teen’s friends, and to have a conversation about the rules around drug and alcohol use and to set a safety plan. Parents who are too stressed to even know where to start will benefit from a longer conversation, and can be referred to some good websites or for a mental health consultation.
Summer should be a time of skill building, adventure, growing independence, and some rest and relaxation. Helping parents to pay attention to their own stress level and access needed supports may be the critical factor in preventing accidents and promoting the health and well being of their children during this wonderful, but risky season.
Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton (Mass.) Wellesley Hospital. Dr. Jellinek is professor of psychiatry and of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston.