MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Firework displays are a popular way to celebrate the Fourth of July, but they also can be scary to some youngsters -- and dangerous to their little ears.
Bronwyn Fees, associate professor of early childhood education at Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology, says it's common for very young children through preschool age to be startled and upset by loud noises such as fireworks, a siren, thunder or a car backfiring.
"We do not shoot fireworks daily, so while adults may understand the significance of the event, young children do not," Fees said. "If they are not accustomed to the loud noises, the noise is unexpected, or if they have no understanding why it occurred, it can be a very frightening experience."
Adults are often eager to share experiences they enjoy with their children and may be disappointed when children do not respond with the same enjoyment, Fees said. But it's important to consider the experience through the child's eyes.
"What is familiar to an adult may be unfamiliar to a young child," she said. "They have a lot yet to understand about their world and regulating their own emotional responses. It takes time and each child is unique."
If you think your child may be fearful of fireworks, Fees says there are things parents can do:
* Prepare your child by explaining what will happen in words he or she will understand. "Remember that time is a hard concept, so talk with your child the day before and on the day of the fireworks display rather than weeks before," Fees said. "Make it concrete and relative to their schedule, such as, 'After dinner tonight, we are going to the park to watch fireworks. Fireworks often make loud noises, some pop and some make no noise. You will see bright colors in the sky. We will watch them together.'"
* Keep the routine of the day as much as possible with eating, napping and favorite rituals. "A very tired or hungry child cannot enjoy any new experience," Fee said.
* At the event, watch your child closely. Sit next to your child so if your child becomes anxious, he or she will have a sense of security.
* Provide physical reassurance. Be patient and relaxed yourself, as your child will watch you for cues on how to respond.
* Provide verbal reassurance that the child will not be hurt, and talk about the types of sounds and the colors and size of the displays.
* Listen as your child tries to talk about and/or point to what they see and acknowledge his or her comments, gestures and concerns.
"If your child is unsure, it may be a good idea for him or her to watch with you from inside the house or with you in the car through a window," Fees said. "Be prepared to leave if your child is upset by the sounds. A crying child is difficult for you and for those around. Forcing a child to endure the experience will not necessarily make him or her like it anymore and may result in anxious behaviors or nightmares."
Fees said that while as a parent you may be disappointed this year, understand that next year your child will be older and probably more likely to tolerate and enjoy the experience.
Parents must also be mindful of the noise level if their child has a sensory-related disability or if their child has experienced a traumatic event, such as storms, a tornado or a harsh accident. Individual preferences and experiences may heighten sensitivity to loud noises and produce anxiety at any age, Fees said.
If a child is anxious, verbally identify his or her emotions and describe the behaviors you observe. Fees said giving your child words to identify his or her feelings helps the child express these feelings back to you in ways you both understand, enhancing communication and emotional self-regulation.
"For example, you can say, 'I see you jumped when you heard the loud boom. Did that surprise you? Did you feel afraid? I am still here and you are still here. We are OK,'" Fees said.
The loud noises produced by some fireworks, especially certain kinds of firecrackers, can cause more than fear in young children -- they also can damage their hearing, according to Robert Garcia, an audiologist and director of Kansas State University's communication sciences and disorders program, a part of the College of Human Ecology.
"Firecrackers like M-80s and others are as intense as shooting a gun," Garcia said. "Because M-80s are so loud, it can only take one exposure to cause permanent hearing loss."
Garcia recommends children wear some sort of ear protection, such as earplugs or headphones, even when watching firecracker-type fireworks from a distance.
And if the child won't keep the ear protection in place, Garcia offers parents this advice: No earplugs, no fireworks.
Fees and Garcia said the top rule for parents to remember is to never let a young child play with fireworks.