How to boost your short kid's confidence

Is your child shorter than average? Here's how to ensure his self-esteem stays intact.
Photo: Robert Warren/Getty Images

Photo: Robert Warren/Getty Images

“Hey, shorty,” says my nearly-six-foot-tall husband to me, his five-foot, one-and-a-half-inch-tall wife. While “shorty” can be a term of endearment – one that I’m actually quite fond of — I must admit: I’m relieved that my son Adam seems to have inherited his dad’s genes for height and will likely be spared the indignity of that particular nickname.

Read more: How to build your child’s self-esteem>

It’s no secret that the schoolyard can be a harsh place for kids who are smaller than their peers. So, it’s understandable that parents may be concerned if their tween fails to measure up to his friends. Kids tend to become more self-conscious about their appearance around age nine, especially if others single them out for significant physical differences.

Before you grow anxious about your child’s stature, take comfort that there are several things you can do (or not do) to ensure his self-esteem stays intact.

DO rule out medical causes
If a child’s growth has slowed or stopped, a hormone deficiency, genetic disorder or underactive thyroid gland may be the cause. But for the vast majority of short children who are growing at a steady rate and are otherwise healthy, it’s unlikely that a medical cause is to blame. According to a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center study published earlier this year, 99 percent of healthy children in the third lowest percentile for height or shorter (meaning they are shorter than 97 percent of kids who are the same age and gender) did not test positive for any known medical condition.

DON’T confuse height with ability
Just because a child is small doesn’t mean he should be babied or kept out of physical activities. Jill Kimble’s 12-year-old son, Austin, who is not only one of the smallest boys in his class, but is also an inch or two shorter than his 10-year-old brother, plays both rep baseball and hockey. “He’s super-fast, maybe even because he’s smaller,” says the Bobcaygeon, Ont., mom.

Read more: Exercise: The secret to success at school>

DON’T assume he’s suffering
Parents’ concerns about height can be based on a misperception that short kids — particularly boys — have a harder time socially, emotionally or behaviourally. While it’s true they might get teased, it’s not necessarily a big deal to the kids. In fact, a study of more than 700 11-year-olds published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009 showed that height isn’t related to a child’s well-being; the shortest girls and boys in the study (tenth percentile or lower) were just as likely as the taller kids to be popular and happy. Encouraging confidence will also help to boost their self-esteem. “Austin has never voiced any concern about being small,” concurs Kimble. “It is who he is.”

DO get the facts about treatment
In 2006, Health Canada approved human-growth hormone treatment for children who measure short without a known medical cause. But according to an international consensus statement in 2008 by 32 leaders in the field, the psychological benefits of the treatment have yet to be proven. Even the physical results are modest: After four to seven years of daily hormone shots, the average increase in adult height attributable to the therapy is one-and-a-half to three inches. And the cost, which works out to about $25,000 to $50,000 per inch, is not usually covered by provincial health plans unless there is an underlying medical condition.

DO keep it in perspective
Make sure your child eats healthy, nutritious food, gets enough sleep and exercises in order to reach his maximum potential height. And remember, children who are shorter than their peers may grow up to be taller than you think. That was the case for my husband – he was among the shortest of his peers until he hit a growth spurt when he was 17.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline “Small fries,” p. 80.

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