How to Help Your 'Short' Kid Through Tricky Situations

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A big part of parenthood is helping your children navigate different scenarios, especially ones that may make them uncomfortable and sad. Kids who are smaller than most other kids their age may have some unique challenges -- insensitive comments from strangers, self-esteem issues, and fear of doctor visits, to name a few -- but luckily your kid has you to help her through.

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This is a topic very near to my own heart, as my son is smaller than average. He has encountered comments from strangers and peers that were hurtful to him, as well as doctor visits that left us both in tears. So I talked to an expert whose experience with this is not only professional, but personal as well.

"I took daily injections of growth hormone from ages 6 through 13. I'm still a really short guy. I'm 5'2"," explains Dr. Michael Paff, a school psychologist. "And both my kids are short, and one takes growth hormone." For himself, Paff finds gentle humor helps a lot, but when it comes to his children, he says it's important for your kids to feel you stood up for them. Here's how to do that.

Insensitive comments from strangers

Paff says people think his kids are twins, but they're really two years apart. When strangers make comments that might hurt your kid's feelings, "the best thing to do is offer a quick correction," says Paff. Then, add something positive and interesting about your child.

I'm going to remember this advice when people can't believe my kids are twins -- some insist my son has to be younger. Next time, my response will be, "Actually, they are twins, and my daughter loves to skateboard and my son loves to dance." This helps the focus turn away from the potentially hurtful comment and onto something positive -- and more representative of your child than just his or her size.  

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Fear of doctor visits

Doctors' appointments aren't always a positive experience when you've got a child whose growth is slow. You might find yourself looking at growth charts with worry or putting your child through blood draws that hurt.

Paff suggests making doctor visit day "fantastically fun" in some way. His own memories of these doctor visits as a child also include going out to eat, to the zoo, or to the movie theater afterward -- and he got to skip school to go to the doctor. His family made it fun for him, taking a bit of the worry out of the experience, and he does the same for his kids, too. "Kids really are very concrete, and operant conditioning works great," he says.

Talk to your kid about the doctor visit and his or her concerns, then let your child know exactly what will happen at the visit and why, so there are no surprises. That can help the experience be a little less scary. Then tell your child that after any tests are complete, and blood is drawn if necessary, he or she can have ice cream -- or another treat of some sort. "Some people call this bribery," Paff says, but adds, "These people see nothing wrong with 'treating themselves' to a drink after a long week at work. We all respond to operant conditioning and there's nothing wrong with using it!"

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Feeling "abnormal" 

Being smaller than their friends -- along with those comments and extra doctor visits -- can make kids feel like something is wrong with them.

Try to avoid using the word "normal" around your kid. "I tell high school students that 'normal is just a setting on a dryer' and they get that, but obviously younger kids don't get that. A way to get at that same idea is to point out that everyone has a height. Some are tall, some are short, some are in the middle. We're all different. It's just one of many things that make you who you are. That's all sort of neutral language," he says.

Paff adds that finding a positive role model who is short can help a child -- for him as a kid, it was Michael J. Fox. Kids today may like to hear that Lady Gaga is 5' 1" and Bruno Mars is 5' 5".

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Lower self-confidence

Paff says it's important for kids (and adults) to own their height. "I think that's important to teach kids with any sort of physical difference that could be stigmatized," he says. For example, with his smaller-than-average daughter, Paff says things like Yup! You're short. And you're brilliant. And beautiful and .... "The 'and'-not-'but' construction normalizes the short stature," he explains. This helps to makes it just another thing about your child, neither good nor bad, paired with really positive qualities that are also accurate. 
 
I'm suddenly feeling more empowered, and will use these strategies to help my child feel more empowered, too ... for being exactly who he is.
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