As a parent, you've noticed that some kids are naturally cautious, while others are more prone to take risks. Psychologists now believe that this is related to brain chemistry. The child who startles easily at loud noises and needs coaxing to get on the seesaw will benefit from a different approach than the child who delights in dangling from the highest rung on the climbing bars. Kids who are fearless adventurers need your help in order to become more patient and vigilant. On the other hand, kids who avoid challenges need your reassurance and encouragement to comfortably explore.
Your child's age also plays a big part in how you handle safety. Very young children haven't developed the judgment to distinguish safe from unsafe situations, and hence need clear, non-negotiable rules. For instance, "Don't go near the stove" and "Never step into the street" are absolutes, which, when said and enforced consistently and emphatically, are accepted by most young children.
Tips for Dealing with Your Child's Fears
- Limit exposure to news on TV, radio, and the Internet.
- Help older children put news events in context. Remind them that many more ordinary events occur each day than the sensationally reported events.
- Avoid scary movies. Even PG movies can have frightening scenes. Talk about how much of what is seen is not real.
- Drawing and make-believe play are productive ways for young children to express and often relieve their concerns.
- Children may worry about things they've seen or heard from the media or other kids. Encourage them to share their fears, and offer accurate information and reassurance.
- Help your kids feel empowered to make the world a safer place by taking action. For instance, older kids can collect money to help disaster victims.
Of course, little children do test the limits and need to be watched. It's not unusual for a toddler to see if you're serious about a rule by approaching a forbidden activity or location with one eye on the taboo goal and the other on you. When your toddler does this, he's trying to discover if you truly mean business--it's an opportunity to make it clear that you do. A firm tone of voice will often suffice. If that doesn't work, you can physically remove your child from the danger.
Little children shouldn't be made to feel that they are bad because they explore. It comes with the territory for your child to be curious about both his surroundings and your reactions. By the same token, it comes with the territory for you to do what's necessary to keep your child safe.
As kids enter the preschool years they begin to develop some judgment about safety, but still can't be expected to apply safety rules consistently on their own. Preschoolers benefit from hearing the reasons why a behavior is safe or unsafe. Explain in a positive and reassuring way why it's important for them to hold your hand in a parking lot, stay near you at the mall, or ask the owner if it's okay to pat a dog. Learning the rationale behind safety rules, with you present to make sure they are followed, helps your child understand why rules are necessary.
By seven or eight, many kids are beginning to understand how to take different factors into consideration when making decisions. Crossing the street is an example: noticing whether the light is red or green is just one step in the process. Looking both ways to see if a car is coming is equally, if not more, important.
Since children vary in how well they are able to coordinate different pieces of information, it's essential to know your child and see how he makes decisions before expecting him to exercise his own judgment in potentially dangerous circumstances. It helps to give your kids lots of opportunities to use their developing skills in low risk situations. Playground games, board games and practice sessions for new tasks will help you assess your child's maturity when it comes to decision-making behavior. (And thank goodness for crossing guards and bike helmets!)
With safety, as with so much else, parents are important role models. Moms and dads often differ in how they approach safety issues. Fathers may complain that mothers worry too much and make kids fearful. Moms may feel that dads are too relaxed when it comes to safety concerns. It can help balance things out when kids are exposed to both approaches. Kids watch parents for cues about how to react. What's your attitude toward new challenges? How do you handle safety during routine activities? Your outlook and actions send a powerful message.
Studies have determined that safety is enhanced when it's not left up to individuals to make certain types of decisions – for instance, about wearing safety belts in cars, or following traffic regulations. When a child is following an externally imposed guideline, he is not as subject to peer pressure. Preteens, and especially teens, who typically feel invincible, may take risks to appear "cool." Setting distinct safety guidelines has renewed importance for this age group. It also helps if a school, community or even a group of parents are all on board with agreed-upon safety rules.
Finding the balance between fear that protects and fear that inhibits can be very difficult in our complex, unpredictable and ever-changing world. It's painful to recognize that we have little control over the bigger world and its dangers. But as parents, we can work to control our own anxiety and equip our kids with the skills to venture forth with optimism and sound judgment.